Malaysia was long seen as a haven of relative freedom and prosperity by Rohingyas. Eleyas, a Rohingya Muslim, fled to Malaysia six years ago, seeking a safe haven from persecution in Myanmar.
Now he has been fired from his job by a boss who told him it was because of his origins and he is scared to leave his home in fear of arrest or harassment.
“I want to find a new job, but it’s not safe. We’re all just staying at home,” Eleyas, 38, told Reuters, not giving his full name for fear of retribution.
For decades, Muslim-majority Malaysia welcomed Rohingya and largely turned a blind eye to their technically illegal employment in low-paying jobs.
But, as in some other parts of the world, the novel coronavirus outbreak has turned sentiment against foreigners, who have been accused of spreading disease, burdening the state and taking jobs as the economy plummets.
While the Rohingyas have been the most obvious targets, other migrants are also worried in a country that relies heavily on foreign labour at factories, construction sites and plantations.
“There is harassment on the streets and online. I’ve never seen anything like this in Malaysia before,” said one Malaysian activist, Tengku Emma Zuriana Tengku Azmi, from the European Rohingya Council rights group.
She was threatened with rape on Facebook after asking the government to allow boats carrying Rohingya refugees to land. The government turned back one boat with 200 refugees on board last month.
The Rohingyas are a minority from largely Buddhist Myanmar, which brands them illegal immigrants although many say they can trace their ancestry there for generations. More than one million now live in camps in Bangladesh.