Artists from refugee communities have decided to pull out of Refugee Fest 2020 in light of heightened xenophobia, said to have spurred out of the Malaysian government’s pushback of Rohingya boats in fear of them bringing COVID-19. The authorities have also detained 202 Rohingya individuals in April and 269 more in June.
As well as refugees themselves facing verbal abuse over social media, activists and NGOS have also been subject to hateful comments from the locals directing threats and insults and refugees. Founder of the festival and President of ‘Beyond Borders’ Mahi Ramakrishnan, has stated that several of her peers working to provide support for migrants have also been victims of online abuse and that there was palpable fear amongst the refugee community as a result.
Refuge for the Refugees founder Heidy Quah posted a screenshot on Facebook of a someone telling her to “go hang yourself” after she wrote about a woman who had suffered traumatic flashbacks after being locked up in an immigration detention centre after giving birth in 2018. The European Rohingya Council’s Malaysian ambassador had also received online threats of rape in April after she called on the government to reverse its pushback policies towards Rohingya refugees.
This year’s Refugee Fest will take place online from 4-10 July, with the line-up including poetry readings, theatre, music and dance performances, photography sessions and film screenings. Panel discussions about issues facing refugee communities that will take place at the festival will also display an empty chair during the discussions to mark the absence of refugee speakers whose voices have been silenced due to the heightened xenophobia in the country.
Confirmed speakers at the event include ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights Chairperson Charles Santiago and Hafsar Tamesuddin, a Rohingya refugee living in New Zealand.
The pandemic has been claimed to have catalysed a shift in attitude in Malaysia, which had previously received Rohingya refugees from Myanmar positively. This development has also been mirrored in Thailand and Bangladesh, the other main destinations for displaced Rohingya.