The Effects of COVID-19 on Refugees in Peninsular Malaysia: Surveillance, Securitization, and Eviction
Keywords:COVID-19, Malaysia, Refugees, Rohingya, Securitization, Surveillance
This paper focuses on the largest group of refugees in Malaysia, the Rohingya. Many Rohingya have made Malaysia their home over recent years, even though they have no official legal status in the country. Refugees more broadly are often tolerated as workers but treated as undocumented migrants by the law. When Covid-19 was detected in Malaysia, the government followed a strategy of suppression with targeted lockdowns in areas of Covid-19 outbreaks. As most refugees are forced to work to survive, they hold important front-line jobs. As a result, they were exposed to Covid-19 at higher rates of infection than Malaysians. In this paper we trace the way the Malaysian government, Malaysian people and refugees encountered Covid-19 and how refugees especially became the subject of enhanced securitization and surveillance based on prejudice. We show how the state enacted securitization first on the borders, before it inverted this process and focused on domestic border work, wherein neighborhoods, mosques and markets became central places of immigration control and exclusion for refugees. Based on data collected during ethnographic fieldwork in peninsular Malaysia between 2020 and 2021, we argue that the securitization of refugees and migrant workers, their surveillance and even expulsion and eviction demonstrates continued and heightened scapegoating of refugees and migrants for all Malaysia’s ills. These actions reinforced the stigma and stereotype of refugees being legally undocumented and therefore outside of and too often unwelcome in the Malaysian body politic.
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