As hundreds of Rohingya refugees fled a detention center in Malaysia, six of them, including two children, were killed on Wednesday when they were struck by a car crossing a highway.
The deaths are the latest tragedy for members of the Muslim ethnic group from Myanmar, many of whom fled persecution in their home and now increasingly find themselves in limbo in the countries where they sought refuge.
A total of 528 detainees escaped from the facility in the northern state of Penang after “riots” occurred around 4 a.m., according to officials. Since then, 362 have been arrested and a search was underway for the others.
The dead were two men, two women, a boy and a girl, Mohd Shuhaily bin Mohd Zain, Penang’s police chief commissioner, told reporters. The incident occurred along a highway connecting the states of Kedah to Penang. He did not disclose their ages.
In 2017, the Rohingya faced mass rape, the burnings of entire villages and drownings at the hands of Myanmar’s security forces. The United States said in March that the atrocities amounted to genocide, and the United Nations has called it “ethnic cleansing.” More than 9,000 people were killed and nearly one million fled the country.
Many had sought refuge in Malaysia, a predominantly Muslim country, which once offered a modicum of hope for a better life. In Kuala Lumpur, the capital, the Rohingya have managed to establish enclaves in several neighborhoods. Many Rohingya men find occasional work as construction workers or in cheap restaurants in the city, and some women work in stalls and shops.
But since 2020, the government has taken a more hard-line approach with Rohingya refugees, citing the coronavirus. Xenophobia toward migrants has also been growing.
The authorities have prosecuted dozens of Rohingya for entering the country without a valid immigration pass, sentencing them to jail and meting out caning punishments. Hundreds have been detained in centers that are unsanitary and overcrowded, resulting in the spread of Covid-19 infections.
In recent years, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia have turned boats of Rohingya refugees away. The United Nations has called it a dangerous “game of human Ping-Pong.”
In these boats, many Rohingya say they remained in cramped conditions, squatting no more than an inch from the person in front of them. Every other day, they were fed bits of rice and noodles and small amounts of water.
Rights activists say that the refusal by many Southeast Asian governments to give the Rohingya shelter amounts to a death sentence. Hundreds of Rohingya have died trying to get to Malaysia. Some were thrown overboard from overloaded boats because countries refused to let them dock. Others were buried in mass graves when their families could not afford the sudden surge in trafficking fees caused by the extended trips.
Liani MK contributed reporting from Penang, Malaysia.