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Rohingya activist in hiding after death threats in Malaysia

Refugee advocate says he has not stepped outside his secret location for a year and is afraid to do so

UCA News reporter, Kuala Lumpur

UCA News reporter, Kuala Lumpur

Published: April 07, 2021 05:00 PM GMT

Updated: April 08, 2021 04:22 AM GMT

Rohingya activist in hiding after death threats in Malaysia

Rohingya refugees rest in a police station before being returned to camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, on May 15, 2019, after they were rescued from going on a sea voyage to Malaysia. (Photo: AFP)

A prominent Rohingya refugee activist living in Malaysia said he has gone into hiding in the face of frequent death threats in the Muslim-majority nation where an estimated 100,000 Rohingya asylum seekers are generally treated as pariahs.

Zafar Ahmad Abdul Ghani, 51, a father of three who is originally from Myanmar, leads the Myanmar Ethnic Rohingya Human Rights Organization Malaysia. His activism on behalf of fellow Rohingya has made him enemies among ethnic Malays who want the asylum seekers gone. 

A false rumor began to spread online a year ago that Zafar had demanded to be granted Malaysian citizenship. He then started receiving death threats. 

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Concerned for his safety, the activist has left his home on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur with his family and has not returned. He and his family now live in a small, undisclosed location, which he is afraid to leave.

“I’m still scared. For a year, I’ve not set foot outside. I’ve not seen the earth outside,” Zafar told the Reuters news agency. Zafar said police have taken no action about the torrent of hate and abuse directed at him online.

The experience has left him exhausted and depressed. “I cannot relax my body, my brain, my heart,” he lamented. “I cry, asking why people are doing this to me.”

Numerous Rohingya asylum seekers experience the same anxiety in Malaysia, where they have fled from ethnic cleansing in Myanmar in the hope of a safe haven. Instead, they have found themselves on the margins of society reduced to lowly paid laboring jobs.

Last year local authorities in Kuala Lumpur accused Rohingya migrants of spreading Covid-19 and proceeded to round up hundreds of asylum seekers, including women and children. They were then taken to overcrowded detention centers where conditions have been described as highly unsanitary.

At the same time, many local Malaysians took to social media railing against the presence of Rohingya refugees in their country.

“Malaysia is unlawfully treating as criminals people who fled atrocities in Myanmar,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said in a statement last year.

Malaysia also drew the ire of rights activists last year by pushing boatloads of Rohingya refugees away from the country’s shores and out to sea.

The refugees, originally from conflict-torn Rakhine state in Myanmar, had set out by boat from refugee camps in Bangladesh, hoping to find asylum in Malaysia.

“Rohingya arriving by boat should be considered as refugees who have a right to protection under international law,” Robertson said.

Malaysian Defense Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob, unmoved by human rights groups, stressed last June that Rohingya refugees arriving by sea to Malaysia were not welcome to stay in the country.

“The Rohingya should know if they come here they cannot stay,” the minister said.

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