Police officers wearing protective suits gather outside an apartment under enhanced lockdown to pick up illegal immigrants, due to the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, May 1, 2020.
Police officers wearing protective suits gather outside an apartment under enhanced lockdown to pick up illegal immigrants, due to the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, May 1, 2020.

KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysian authorities Friday rounded up hundreds of undocumented migrants, including children and refugees, in the capital, Kuala Lumpur, in what the police are calling an effort to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

Rights groups say the Labor Day raid was more of an immigration exercise at a time of rising xenophobia against refugees and that it may do more harm than good by discouraging many from coming forward for testing or treatment voluntarily.

Authorities say the raid on the downtown neighborhood of Masjid India, home to many migrant workers, yielded nearly 600 people staying in the country illegally. The site has been under strict lockdown barring movement in or out since a cluster of COVID-19 cases was discovered there last month.

The entire country has been under a partial lockdown, or “movement control order,” since mid-March. It reported 6,176 cases of COVID-19 and 103 deaths as of Sunday.

National Police Inspector-General Abdul Hamid Bador said the undocumented migrants had to be rounded up to prevent them from sneaking out of the area and possibly spreading the virus to other parts of the city or country, state news agency Bernama reported.

"We cannot allow them to move freely while the MCO is still in progress as it will be difficult for us to track them down if they leave the identified locations," he said.

Hamid Bador added that those arrested would be held until the MCO is lifted and that the government would decide what to do with them after that.

Police referred a call for comment from VOA to the Immigration Department. Calls and emails to the department went unanswered.

Dozens of local rights groups have signed an open letter condemning the mass arrest as a step backward in the country's fight against the coronavirus just when it had started to flatten the curve.

Malaysia relies on millions of migrant workers from neighboring countries to supply the cheap, unskilled labor running many of the country’s rubber and palm oil plantations and factories. Most are believed to be in the country illegally, having either entered without the proper documents or remained after they expired. 

"The fear we have is if you start arresting now, the rest of the population ... will not go for testing even though the testing is free," said Sumitha Shaanthinni Kishna, director of migrant worker rights group Our Journey.

"In terms of COVID, it's definitely not going to help because ... it's going to [instill] more fear. And if people like this go into hiding, how are you going to get them to come for testing?"

In its own statement on Friday's raid, the United Nations said pushing undocumented workers into hiding could leave more potential cases untreated, "creating further risks to the spreading of Covid-19 to others."

"Now is not the time for mass arrest and mass detention, simply because this does not stop the spread of the virus at all; in fact it encourages it," agreed Heidy Quah, founder of Refuge for the Refugees, another local rights group.

Government officials had for weeks been trying to coax the country's refugees and undocumented migrants to get tested by offering to perform the procedure free of charge and promising not to dig into their immigration status.

Police officers wearing protective suits pick up an illegal immigrant from an apartment under enhanced lockdown, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, May 1, 2020.

Quah said Friday's raids have foiled those efforts.

"We promised that we will not arrest or detain you; that was the promise. And us NGOs on the ground worked so hard to convince refugees and migrants to step forward, promising them protection when they step forward. So whatever that we promised as the government and as nonprofit organizations to the refugee and migrant communities in terms of protection, this has all been reversed because of the mass arrest that took place," she said.

Rights workers said the raids also made little sense as a virus-busting move because most of the residents of the targeted apartment blocks had been tested already, according to neighbors, and were living under strict lockdown for weeks. They said the mass arrest also flouted social distancing rules by jamming those rounded up into packed trucks and detention centers, adding to the risks of transmission.

"So this was actually a clearly immigration exercise," said Shaanthinni Kishna.

The raid occurred against the backdrop of a spike in xenophobia in Malaysia targeting refugees, landing hardest on the country's Rohingya immigrants. Driven from their homes in Myanmar by communal violence and military raids, or fleeing squalid camp conditions in neighboring Bangladesh, more than 100,000 Rohingya have ended up in Malaysia.

Motivated by a sense of Islamic solidarity, the government of Muslim-majority Malaysia has been mostly accommodating to their fellow faithful. It denies them official refugee status, so that they cannot work legally, but lets them stay and register with the country’s U.N. refugee office.

Since the outbreak of the coronavirus, though, some Malaysians have accused the Rohingya of being a high risk and drain on resources. A purported call for Malaysian citizenship attributed to and denied by a local Rohingya activist last month drew a flood of public rebuke. Online petitions calling on the government to stop letting Rohingya into the country or deport those already here attracted more than 100,000 supporters in a matter of days.