In recent weeks, there have been numerous discussions in Malaysia related to the country’s ability to provide a safe haven for people in need of protection, after having survived a treacherous journey by sea. The authorities cited COVID-19 concerns to justify pushing back boats, including one with Rohingya refugees in search of safety on 16 April.  Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) submits that the response to COVID-19 should not come at the expense of Malaysia fulfilling its humanitarian obligations under international law towards people in distress at sea.

In the past, Malaysia has demonstrated leadership in the region by allowing refugees and asylum-seekers to disembark on humanitarian grounds. Amid tighter border controls in the fight against COVID-19, boats are currently prevented from approaching Malaysian territorial waters. This is deeply concerning. Pushing back boats sends refugees on an endless search for safety while risking hunger, illness and death.

Therefore, if indeed the government is concerned about its capacity to allow safe disembarkation during the COVID-19 outbreak, MSF, as a medical humanitarian organisation, is willing to further support the government in its COVID-19 and general health response with regards to refugees and asylum-seekers.

By upholding its responsibility, Malaysia will help to save the lives of many people desperately looking for safety, including children. On April 14, after two months at sea, around 390 people were rescued by the Bangladesh Coast Guard on Bangladesh’s south-eastern coastline. The accounts that emaciated survivors told MSF’s staff at a transit centre in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, were nothing short of horrifying. They recounted how, with two to three people dying every day, and despite the fact that they were in clear distress, no state in the region seemed willing to save them as they were denied permission to land.

One 14 year old girl told us: “It was extremely hot, there was no food, and no water...[…] People drank salt water from the sea and died. We got one handful of dal and one capful of water per day. [...] The men were beaten and became extremely malnourished, only skin and bone was remaining. We had to sit with our knees up to our chests for the whole time. Many people got swelling in their legs, became paralysed or died.”  Most of these people were young Rohingya women and men between the ages of 12 and 20, but there were also young children on board. Those who succumbed to heat and starvation during the journey were then thrown overboard by the crew.

MSF takes seriously efforts to control the spread of the coronavirus outbreak. Having worked to help meet the healthcare needs of refugee communities in Penang for over 5 years, MSF is willing and able to support the government if this is required to facilitate safe disembarkation.  From a public health point of view, the risk that boat arrivals from Myanmar and Bangladesh are suffering from COVID-19 is very low, as they have effectively been quarantined on boats for weeks during their journey. However, if the government sees quarantine as a prerequisite as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak, MSF is willing to support the government by providing medical capacity during quarantine, including screening and swabbing. It is equally important to attend to the other health needs of survivors following their long and perilous journey. MSF is able to provide primary healthcare, mental health services, malnutrition treatment and SGBV counselling and treatment.

On various occasions since the Andaman crisis, including during the Bali Process, Malaysia and other South East Asian nations have emphasised the primacy of saving lives at sea. It is important to now live up to this promise.

MSF stands together with other actors who are also willing to offer support. We respectfully await a response from the Malaysian government and hope our offer will be taken with goodwill.

Beatrice Lau,
Head of Mission for MSF in Malaysia.


Originally published in Astro AWANI.

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