The Malaysian Bar is deeply disheartened with the Government’s action in pushing back Rohingya refugees arriving by boat on 16 April 2020. It was reported that the authorities refused to allow disembarkation of a boat with approximately 200 Rohingya aboard in the waters off Langkawi, due to COVID-19 fears.1
It is troubling that the Government, in so doing, violated the customary international law principle of non-refoulement, departing from its legal and moral obligation not to deport individuals to situations where their very lives may be in serious jeopardy. This principle is further underscored in the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (“UNCAT”), that Malaysia has committed to ratify.
The COVID-19 pandemic has raised the alarm on our refugee situation, and we are forced to seriously consider the way forward. The result must lie in a sustainable solution that does not involve reneging on our commitment to non-refoulement and leaving our fellow human beings to fend for themselves out at sea.
The Malaysian Bar recognises that this is a trying time for Malaysia and our citizens. Our resources are already stretched thin. However, we are reminded that we exist as part of a global community, and together, we have to support each other. In the same way that nations are trying their best to combat the scourge of COVID-19, we are called on to not turn our backs on the vulnerable when they need us the most.
The Malaysian Bar acknowledges the Government’s concerns in combating the unprecedented pandemic, but Malaysia should have allowed the refugees ashore and quarantined them with further health checks.
The Malaysian Bar therefore, urges the Government:
(1) to deploy search-and-rescue missions, and ensure safe access to territory and international protection, for those in need;
(2) to provide humanitarian assistance and medical treatment where required; and
(3) to ratify the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, and develop a domestic legal framework to regulate the status and protection of refugees nationally.
The Malaysian Bar reiterates that refugees are persons who are fleeing their countries of origin due to persecution and discrimination. We therefore call upon all Malaysians to come together to assist these communities, who are among the most defenceless, in the fight against COVID-19.
The Malaysian Bar calls on the Government, as a responsible member of the international community, to honour, respect and uphold the rules and customs of international law as well as provisions of Malaysian law. The COVID-19 pandemic should not be used as an excuse to derogate from these obligations.
24 April 2020
1 “Malaysia turns back Rohingya boat over coronavirus fears”, Channel News Asia, 17 April 2020.