Malaysia detains hundreds of refugees, migrant amid COVID-19 lockdown

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Malaysia on Friday detained hundreds of refugees and migrant workers for illegally living in the country, rights groups said, at a time of movement and travel restrictions imposed to contain the spread of Covid-19.

Malaysia has around two million registered foreign workers but authorities estimate many more are living in the Southeast Asian country without proper documents.

Malaysia does not formally recognise refugees, regarding them as illegal migrants.

The arrests followed immigration raids in a neighbourhood in capital Kuala Lumpur where thousands of migrant workers and refugees live, according to human rights groups and photos shared on social media.

Human Rights Watch and the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network said over 700 migrants were taken into custody including young children.

Malaysian police and the immigration department did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Rachel Tan, programme officer at the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network, said the arrests were a “criminalisation of a people who toil in difficult and dangerous work conditions”.

The neighbourhood where the raids took place was close to an area with three buildings that had been placed under strict lockdowns last month after a surge in coronavirus cases there.

Malaysia has reported a total of 6,071 coronavirus cases and 103 deaths, and its prime minister said on Friday that most businesses will reopen from Monday following six-week long curbs that have caused a damaging economic slowdown.