7 APRIL 2021

The global pandemic has exposed the terrible legacy of deliberately divisive and destructive policies that have perpetuated inequality, discrimination and oppression and worsened or the devastation wrought by COVID-19, Amnesty International said in its annual report published today.

Amnesty International Report 2020/21: The State of the World’s Human Rights covers 149 countries and delivers a comprehensive analysis of human rights trends globally in 2020.

In the report, the organisation describes those already most marginalised, including women and refugees, as bearing the devastating brunt of the pandemic, as a result of decades of discriminatory policy decisions by world leaders. Health workers, migrant workers, and those in the informal sector—many at the frontlines of the pandemic—have also been betrayed by neglected health systems and patchy economic and social support.

The response to the global pandemic has been further undermined by leaders who have ruthlessly exploited the crisis and weaponised COVID-19 to launch fresh attacks on human rights, the organisation says.

In Malaysia, the government response to the COVID-19 pandemic was especially harsh on refugees, asylum-seekers and migrant workers. Immigration raids, involving arrests and detentions, were conducted in areas with high migrant populations amid rising xenophobia.

A COVID-19 outbreak emerged in immigration detention centres, with over 600 people infected, while thousands have contracted the disease in prisons. Allegations of migrants in forced labour and living in cramped housing hit Malaysia’s rubber glove industry, which experienced elevated demand during the COVID-19 pandemic. Infection outbreaks hit glove factories with one employee fired after raising concerns about overcrowding. Outbreaks also occurred in construction sites.

“In 2020, the government response to COVID-19 exposed the inequalities that exist in the country,” said Katrina Maliamauv, executive director of Amnesty International Malaysia. “Populations already marginalised due to structural discrimination, including the poor, migrant, refugees, asylum seekers, indigenous persons were the hardest hit groups as they faced challenges including access to food, multiple mass raids and arrests, loss of employment, outbreaks of COVID-19 in workplaces and detention centres, as well as a rise in xenophobia.”

Malaysia, which saw a change in government in February 2020, also saw significant regression in freedom of expression. Human rights defenders who criticised or protested the change in government were investigated, while journalists covering raids on migrants also faced questioning by authorities. Laws restricting speech such as the Sedition Act and Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA) continue to be used while efforts to repeal and review them have stalled.

LGBTI people continued to face discrimination while Indigenous Peoples across the country remained under threat of losing land to development and logging. While the government voted for a global moratorium on executions in the UN, no progress has been made on the abolition of the death penalty domestically. Allegations of abuse by police, including deaths in custody, were not transparently addressed, while the government withdrew a bill to establish an independent oversight commission, replacing it with a weaker version that has yet to be voted on.

“The government must not only urgently introduce human rights reforms, it must also address policies that have led to the inequality, discrimination and oppression of vulnerable groups we so clearly saw at the height of the pandemic,” said Katrina. “The government’s own slogan of “lindung diri, lindung semua” points to the interrelated, interconnected nature of our lives and our rights. We therefore strongly urge the government to commit to a human rights centric approach as we recover from a year under COVID-19, including respecting freedom of expression; ensuring the right to freedom of assembly; abolishing the death penalty; preventing deaths in custody, torture and other ill-treatment by state security forces; protecting the rights of refugees and asylum seekers and LGBTI individuals; recognising Indigenous Peoples’ rights; and respecting freedom of religion.”

For more information, please contact Brian Yap at [email protected]

Download to view Malaysia’s entry of the full report: