There are no foreigners in a lockdown

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

By Saqib Sheikh

The world is in a state of harmonized chaos. A calamitous tumble of the economy and global order is visible through empty streets and vacant parks, not protests or violence. It is peaceful, yes, but an eerie peace that has been forced upon us.

The Coronavirus has thus proven to be a most egalitarian of public health challenges, not discriminating between prime ministers and the man (who was once seen) on the street. These lockdowns and quarantines are not as egalitarian though. 

As with any crisis, this economic shutdown, while justifiable, has pushed those on the margins even further to the edges of survival. In Malaysia where I am based, this includes the over 170,000 refugees who are not formally recognized by the government. Their paltry means of livelihood has been largely cut off. Imagine earning enough to only cover tomorrow’s meal and then discover find out that tomorrow no earning will be allowed. 

Photo credit: Hadi Azmi

They suffer silently and are reliant on a lifeline of hastily arranged NGO food aid distributors. The Government, perhaps concerned that local sensitivities can be triggered at this inauspicious time, has made it a point to mention that such aid to needy refugees is privately funded and not on the public dime, unlike aid given to below-poverty locals. Meanwhile, the Navy sent back two boats of over 200 Rohingya refugees seeking sanctuary in the country, citing concerns of being overloaded beyond the country’s capacity to host.

This hardening of distinctions, between local and refugee (and foreigners generally), between the familiar and unfamiliar, can be expected. But the virus doesn’t care for such distinctions. Logically, every member of the confined population represents an equal potential virus carrier. The shutdown has jolted foreigner and local in equal measure as well. 

Portugal has taken a more novel approach to their own State of Emergency, granting refugees and asylum seekers temporary rights of citizenship. What can be seen as an act of magnanimity likely has a bottom-line pragmatism behind it. Removing restrictions to healthcare and public services for particular subsets of the population would likely ease the overall government strategy of containment of the virus. It will also build a sense of greater solidarity for all residents regardless of where they come from. 

It may take some time, but this crisis will pass. What will define humanity is our takeaways from this extended socially-isolated reality. Borders will almost certainly be tightened. But perhaps there can be a recognition that when faced with a collective threat like a pandemic, those who are part of the same social fabric deserve the same protections.  

A US national, Saqib Sheikh is based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He serves as Project Director of the Rohingya Project, a grassroots initiative for financial inclusion of stateless Rohingya worldwide, and is an Adviser/Co-founder of the Refugee Coalition of Malaysia (RCOM), a network of refugee community groups in Malaysia focused on advocacy and empowerment. He is also a Senior Teaching Fellow at Sunway University where he teaches media and communication at the Center for American Education. Contact:

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