As hundreds of Rohingya refugees fled a detention center in Malaysia, six of them, including two children, were killed on Wednesday when they were hit by a car crossing a highway.
The deaths are the latest tragedy for members of Myanmar’s Muslim ethnic group, many of whom fled persecution in their homes and are now increasingly in limbo in the countries they sought refuge.
Officials say a total of 528 detainees escaped from the facility in the northern state of Penang after ‘riots’ broke out around 4 a.m. Since then, 362 have been arrested and the others have been sought.
The dead were two men, two women, a boy and a girl, Penang Police Commissioner Mohd Shuhaily bin Mohd Zain told reporters. The incident took place along a highway connecting Kedah and Penang states. He did not disclose their ages.
In 2017, the Rohingya were confronted with mass rapes, entire villages being burned and drownings by Myanmar’s security forces. The United States said in March the atrocities amounted to genocide, and the United Nations has called it “ethnic cleansing.” More than 9,000 people were killed and nearly a million fled the country.
Many had taken refuge in Malaysia, a predominantly Muslim country, which once offered some hope for a better life. In the capital Kuala Lumpur, the Rohingya have managed to establish enclaves in several neighborhoods. Many Rohingya men occasionally find 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 tougher approach with Rohingya refugees, citing the coronavirus. Xenophobia towards migrants has also increased.
Authorities have prosecuted dozens of Rohingya for entering the country without a valid immigration pass, handing them prison terms and caning. Hundreds have been held in centers that are unsanitary and overcrowded, leading to the spread of Covid-19 infections.
Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia have turned boats of Rohingya refugees away in recent years. The United Nations has called it a dangerous “human ping-pong game.”
In these boats, many Rohingya said they stayed in cramped conditions, no more than an inch from the person crouched in front of them. Every other day they were given pieces of rice and noodles and small amounts of water.
Rights activists say many Southeast Asian governments’ refusal to host the Rohingya is tantamount to a death sentence. Hundreds of Rohingya have died trying to reach Malaysia. Some were thrown overboard by overloaded boats because countries refused to dock them. Others were buried in mass graves when their families could not afford the sudden increase in trafficking fees due to the long journeys.
Liani MK contributed reporting from Penang, Malaysia.