03/20/2020, 18.38
MALAYSIA
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Rohingya refugees sought after taking part in Islamic meeting where at least 665 people were infected

The tabligh was held in Sri Petaling's Jamek mosque from 27 February to 1 March. About 14,500 Malaysians and 1,500 foreigners attended the event. Scores of participants from Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, Cambodia and Thailand contracted the COVID-19 virus. Malaysian authorities tracked down 12,000 participants. Refugees are avoiding testing fearful of “arrest and other repercussions”.

Kuala Lumpur (AsiaNews) – Malaysian authorities are trying to track down hundreds of Rohingya refugees who attended an Islamic religious gathering held on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur from 27 February to 1 March, after a large number of participants contracted the coronavirus.

The UN refugee agency and Rohingya community leaders in Malaysia are stepping up efforts to get refugees who attended the event to come forward for COVID-19 testing, after cases linked to the event jumped across Southeast Asia.

The religious gathering (tabligh) was held in Sri Petaling's Jamek mosque, attracting some 14,500 Malaysians and 1,500 foreigners (pictures). Up to 700 cases across the region have been attributed to the event.

Overall,, Malaysia has reported 900 coronavirus cases so far, but 576 of them are linked to the mosque event. In Brunei 61 of its 73 cases are also connected to the religious gathering. Singapore has confirmed five, Cambodia 22 and Thailand at least two.

Malaysian authorities have identified most of the people who attended the tabligh, but some 4,000 are still unaccounted for.

Participants spent most of their time in the crowded mosque, but some went to restaurants, shopping malls and visited Kuala Lumpur's famous Petronas towers. Others engaged in door-to-door activities.

More than a hundred thousand Rohingya refugees from Myanmar are believed to live in Malaysia, where they are considered illegal immigrants. For activists, this status is making many of them reluctant to come forward for coronavirus testing when they show flu-like symptoms.

“We have increased awareness and have advised the Rohingya to get tested," said Bo Min Naing, president of the Rohingya Society in Malaysia. He estimates that 400 to 600 Rohingya attended the gathering.

Human rights activist Lilianne Fan said that the refugees “do fear arrest and other repercussions”. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said on its website that it had requested the government not to arrest any refugee or asylum seeker without documents or with expired papers.

For its part, the agency has postponed all appointments, amid two-week movement curbs in the country, to contain the spread of the virus.

Rohingya community leaders said that UNHCR wrote to them, urging them to convince all refugees who attended the Jamek mosque to immediately contact health authorities without fear of arrests.

Despite the precedent in Kuala Lumpur, another tabligh was set to take place yesterday in Indonesia. About 9,000 people from Southeast Asia, South Asia and the Middle East travelled to Gowa Regency, Malassar province (South Sulawesi Island), ignoring the requests of the authorities to postpone the event.

At the last minute, organisers cancelled the event. But about 83 Malaysians who had planned to go to the gathering, did so violating the government’s decision to close the country’s borders. Now there are fears about them infecting others once they are back.

Lina Soo, a member of the People's Aspiration Party, a Sarawak State-based political party, criticised her compatriots’ behaviour, calling it a “suicide mission”.

“The COVID-19 crisis is a life and death matter,” she said. “In Malaysia, the infection has already advanced to ‘community transmission’ with clusters around church groups and Muslim gatherings”.

In her view, “Any Malaysian who visited the aborted Sulawesi gathering must be quarantined for three weeks as the incubation period for this virus can be as long as 20 days.”

What is more, she added that “To deflect the infection curve, all states in the country must close their borders to prevent inter-state movement of people.”

(Joseph Masilamany contributed to this article).

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