The Effects of COVID-19 on Refugees in Peninsular Malaysia: Surveillance, Securitization, and Eviction




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.

Author Biographies

Aslam Abd Jalil, Universiti Malaya

Aslam Abd Jalil is a fellow at the International Institute of Public Policy & Management (IN- PUMA), Universiti Malaya. He has a background in anthropology, public policy and business studies and is combining these three fields in researching the issues of refugee work rights and labour migration in Malaysia.

Gerhard Hoffstaedter, University of Queensland

Dr Gerhard Hoffstaedter is Associate Professor in anthropology in the School of Social Science at the University of Queensland. He conducts research with refugees in Southeast Asia, on refugee and immigration policy and on religion and the state. His first book entitled Modern Muslim Identities: Negotiating Religion and Ethnicity in Malaysia was published by NIAS Press. A co-edited volume Urban Refugees: Challenges in Protection, Services and Policy was published with Routledge in 2015. He is course director for the social anthropology Massive Open Online Course World101x: The Anthropology of Current World Issues that has taught tens of thousands of students how to think more anthropologically.


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