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Rohingyas, migrant workers face the brunt of Malaysia’s xenophobia during Covid

The Print, Malaysia, 15 May 2020 - The sequence of events is familiar. As the coronavirus spreads across an economy, livelihoods are lost and futures are imperiled. Looking for someone to blame, populists and opportunistic politicians turn to migrants and refugees. Soon, the local social media fills with xenophobia and hate, along with demands that the foreigners “go back to where they came from.”

For weeks, this pattern has played out with particular vehemence in Malaysia. The targeted foreigners are the Rohingya, a largely Muslim ethnic group that has faced decades of persecution in nearby Myanmar. In recent days, the situation has become so extreme that 83 human-rights groups demanded that Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin intercede. He should pay attention: Calming these tensions will ultimately protect the public health and livelihoods of all Malaysians — and quite possibly provide an example for other countries grappling with the same poisonous problem.

Southeast Asia’s economic development has long coincided with vast inequalities. As fast-growing Malaysia developed, low-income rural workers from neighboring countries flocked to work at palm-oil plantations, factories and the homes of the rich. Today, Malaysia has as many as 5.5 million migrant workers, the majority of whom are illegal and undocumented, out of a total population of 32.7 million. Although they’re critical to the economy, these migrants are denied basic public benefits and prohibited from formal employment. One result is that shadow-economy employers often take advantage of them.



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