Does Malaysia need a better immigration policy?

Rohingyas are among the thousands of migrants in Malaysia. Photo: English: Foreign and Commonwealth Office / OGL v1.0

COVID-19 has increased the risks facing thousands of refugees in Malaysia. All stakeholders in Malaysia should overcome their political differences to formulate a practical immigrant policy.

By Umair Jamal

Thousands of migrant workers in Malaysia face an increasingly difficult situation as the government plans to arrest and expel more undocumented people to contain the spread of COVID-19 in the country. Malaysia is home to more than two million documented refugees and roughly four million undocumented workers. There are also roughly 180,000 asylum seekers registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Malaysia.

Over the last few weeks, Malaysian authorities have arrested more than 550 undocumented migrants in raids across the country. Malaysian authorities say that the move was aimed at keeping undocumented migrants from traveling and spreading the coronavirus.

However, the UN has warned that the government’s actions are increasing fears of repatriation among migrant groups in Malaysia. “The fear of arrest and detention may push these vulnerable population groups further into hiding and prevent them from seeking treatment, with negative consequences for their own health and creating further risks to the spreading [sic] of COVID-19 to others,” said the UN in a statement.  

In this regard, the Rohingya refugees in Malaysia may now be more vulnerable, as the government refuses to recognize their status as immigrants or refugees. “Any organization that claims to represent the Rohingya ethnic group is illegal under the [Registrar of Societies Act], and legal action can be taken,” said Malaysia’s Home Minister Datuk Seri Hamzah Zainudin.

This hardened approach towards one of the most vulnerable migrant groups in Malaysia is going to increase the community’s problems in the coming weeks and months.

Is the government following a policy of invoking fear?

Over the last two months, Malaysian police have raided homes of undocumented migrants in an attempt to contain COVID-19’s spread across the country.

Illegal migrants with no legal protection view these actions as a direct threat of deportation. Reports indicate that about 2,200 people have been imprisoned following immigration raids over the last few months. Adding to their worries is the fact that the Malaysia’s National Task Force is detaining newly-arrived migrants and asylum seekers at its borders. Last week, Malaysia detained 269 Rohingya refugees on a boat near Langkawi.

The UN warning appears to be coming true: the fear of arrest is forcing thousands of migrants into hiding. Malaysia’s four million undocumented migrants don’t have adequate access to health and social welfare services. COVID-19 has exposed the threat posed by these existing gaps. A majority of undocumented workers have been reliant on aid from NGOs, which have either been barred from distributing food supplies or are being watched by security agencies.

These actions by the government will create more challenges for Malaysia’s efforts to contain COVID-19. To effectively contain the virus, the Malaysian government needs the cooperation of the millions of refugees in the country. An adversarial approach that can spread fear and resentment across migrant communities is not going to work.

Policymakers in Malaysia believe that softening Malaysia’s stance on refugees will bring more immigrants to the country’s shores. Some politicians in the country are concerned that making it easier for migrants to move to Malaysia will draw criticism from their voters.

For decades, Malaysia served as a transit route for thousands of refugees, but this may not be the case anymore. A growing number of refugees see Malaysia as their home rather than a corridor for other destinations. The government’s response has been to toughen its stance against refugees.

How fake news and propaganda are creating more woes for migrants in Malaysia

Immigration has remained a focal point in Malaysia’s electoral politics. For a long time, politicians in the country have used the issue to push political agendas that shape how locals view refugees. As the COVID-19 pandemic surges, online hate speech and xenophobia against migrants is taking root.

In recent weeks, racism and discrimination against migrants in Malaysia have increased. Social media platforms in the country are buzzing with accusations that declare illegal migrants, particularly Rohingya, to be criminals. Like heavy-handed police tactics, insulting and dehumanizing migrant workers risks increasing infections.

Does Malaysia need a better refugee policy?

The government in Malaysia must begin registering all migrants in the country, otherwise contact tracing and screening of COVID-19 patients is impossible. There is also a widespread perception that Malaysia’s government is using COVID-19 as an excuse to clampdown on migrants in the country. The issue needs to be addressed as early as possible.

During the pandemic, the government needs to ensure that all migrants in the country are offered access to health care without fears of arrest or deportation. The government should strive to pass legislation to protect migrants’ legal rights and criminalize growing racism against them. If the country’s marginalized migrant communities are not protected by the state, locals may use legislative loopholes to incite violence and lead attacks against them.

These efforts should not happen at the cost of Malaysia’s national security, which at times may come under threat from a large unregistered population residing in the country. To address this, Malaysia should reach out to its neighboring states to formulate joint policies to manage migrant workers in the region.

It is high time that Malaysia addresses its immigration challenges through solutions that are sustainable and implements them through consultation with all stakeholders.

About the Author

Umair Jamal
Umair Jamal is a freelance journalist and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He can be reached at and on Twitter @UmairJamal15