Malaysia seeks Rohingya for coronavirus checks after mosque outbreak: sources

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Malaysian authorities are trying to track down an estimated 2,000 Rohingya who attended a Muslim gathering that led to a spike in coronavirus cases across Southeast Asia, a security source and two other people familiar with the matter said.

FILE PHOTO: A police officer wearing protective mask stands guard outside the Seri Petaling Mosque, which has emerged as a source of hundreds of new coronavirus disease infections spanning across Southeast Asia, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia March 18, 2020. REUTERS/Lim Huey Teng/File Photo

The head of a refugee rights group said her checks suggested that “several hundred” Rohingya attended the gathering late last month at a mosque on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur.

More than 100,000 Rohingya live in Malaysia after fleeing Myanmar, but they are considered illegal immigrants.

Their status would likely make them reluctant to identify themselves to get tested for the coronavirus even if they showed symptoms, other sources in the Rohingya community said.

Malaysia’s search for the Rohingya highlights the challenge for governments trying to track the virus among communities living without official papers and wary of authorities.

The religious gathering was attended by some 16,000 people. As well as the Rohingya and other refugees and undocumented migrants, about 1,500 Muslims from across Asia attended.

More than 670 coronavirus cases in Southeast Asia have been linked to the gathering, including 576 in Malaysia, 61 in Brunei, 22 in Cambodia, five in Singapore, seven in Thailand, and one each in Vietnam and the Philippines.

Malaysia has 900 coronavirus cases in all, the highest in Southeast Asia.

Malaysian authorities have been tracking down the participants but say they have been unable to find about 4,000 of them.

Lilianne Fan, chair of the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network’s Rohingya Working Group, said authorities including the police, the U.N. refugee agency and NGOs were working to identify those who attended the event or who have been exposed to people who attended.

Although the refugee community has been largely cooperating, some were reluctant to go for tests, fearing arrest, she told Reuters, adding that many more Burmese Muslim refugees, another ethnic group from Myanmar like the Rohingya, attended the event.

“One important and urgent step that should be taken is for the government to publicly come out to state that all undocumented migrants and refugees need not fear arrest and detention, and that all positive cases will be given free medical treatment and not be subject to arrest at hospitals,” Fan said.

Police declined to comment and directed queries to the Malaysian National Security Council under the prime minister’s office. It could not be reached for comment.


The government had asked the police criminal investigation division to look for the missing participants, the security source said.

Malaysia implemented travel curbs and shut down non-essential businesses from Wednesday for two weeks to contain the coronavirus after the spike in cases linked to the mosque gathering. One person who attended the gathering died from the virus this week.

Participants spent most of their time crowded in the mosque for the four-day event, but some went to restaurants, malls and Kuala Lumpur’s Petronas twin towers, according to Reuters interviews with people who attended and social media posts.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Malaysia said it was working with the Ministry of Health to ensure that all refugee and asylum-seeking communities were included in government response measures.

The Ministry of Health did not respond to requests for comment.

A 39-year-old Rohingya construction worker and father of four, who lives in the Malaysian state of Penang, said he spent days at the mosque event with nearly two dozen Rohingya friends.

He said none of them was showing symptoms and he went to a hospital but was not tested.

“Everything’s fine, no fever, nothing,” he said.

Salman, a Bangladeshi construction worker who lives near the mosque, said he and many other Bangladeshis went to the gathering. His coronavirus test was negative but the hospital was calling him daily to check for symptoms.

Reporting by Krishna N. Das and A. Ananthalakshmi in Kuala Lumpur; Additional reporting by Karen Lema and Martin Petty in Manila, Joseph Sipalan in Kuala Lumpur, James Pearson in Hanoi and Kay Johnson in Bangkok; Editing by Robert Birsel and Nick Macfie