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Screenshot from Al Jazeera's Locked Up in Malaysia's Lockdown | 101 East. © 2020 YouTube

A Bangladeshi migrant worker in Malaysia faces dire consequences for speaking out about the poor treatment of migrant workers in the country. Mohamed Rayhan Kabir spoke to Al Jazeera about Malaysia’s controversial roundup of undocumented migrants during the COVID-19 pandemic for a documentary entitled “Locked Up in Malaysia’s Lockdown.”

Shortly after the documentary aired, Malaysian authorities announced they wanted to question Kabir. They splashed his name, photo, and address across the media, putting him at risk in an environment increasingly hostile towards migrants. A few days later, in what appears to be a clear act of retaliation for his critical comments, the inspector-general of police announced that the Immigration Department had revoked Kabir’s work permit.

The government’s action sends a chilling message to the country’s many migrant workers: If you want to stay in Malaysia, don’t speak up no matter how badly you have been treated. 

Immigration Director-General Khairul Dzaimee Daud made that point clearly. In a July 6 statement, he warned that foreigners on long-term passes should “be careful” when making any statements or risk losing their work permits. He added that permit holders “will be required to leave the country immediately if the statement is inaccurate and aimed at damaging Malaysia’s image.”

Kabir is not the only one facing consequences for criticizing the Malaysian government’s treatment of migrants. On July 10, police questioned six Al Jazeera staff as part of a police investigation into whether the documentary violated any laws, including sedition and criminal defamation laws and the Communications and Multimedia Act, frequently used to curb free speech.

The police are also investigating Heidy Quah, the director of the nongovernmental organization Refuge for the Refugees, for criminal defamation and violating the Communications and Multimedia Act for a social media post she made alleging mistreatment of refugees at immigration detention centers.

These incidents and threats serve to stifle criticism of the government’s treatment of migrants. Migrant communities are already in a precarious situation in Malaysia. Many migrants have lost their jobs due to the pandemic, and some are going hungry and have lost their housing. Many are also at an increased risk of contracting COVID-19 because their cramped living conditions make social distancing impossible. Malaysia should end the manhunt for Kabir, end its attacks on media freedom, and stop mistreating migrants and harassing those who defend them. 

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