Thursday, October 8, 2015

Why do we only like refugees if they’re pretty?

OCTOBER 7 — Our dear Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak got quite a lot of flak online after he announced in New York that Malaysia was going to give shelter to 3,000 Syrian refugees.

Hold up, Malaysian denizens asked: What about the Syrians who are already here? The Afghans? The Rohingya? 

Since when did Malaysia start making a distinction between refugees and so-called “illegals.”

Here’s what you need to know: Malaysia has never signed the 1951 Refugee Convention, which gives protection and accords certain rights to refugees. 

A refugee under the terms of said convention is defined thus:

“A person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”

The Malay word for refugee is simply “pelarian” — stemming from the word “lari” or run. Sadly, it is often used as a derogatory term here, because it’s not just the government who doesn’t recognise refugees — it’s us, too.

Being a refugee means that to stay in your home country means almost certain death, and the only chance at having some sort of life is to run.

Just look back in history and there are plenty of names of people who had to run — from wars, civil unrest or persecution. 

Refugees who unluckily end up in Malaysia often come here with nothing but the clothes on their backs. What do they find? Locals who shun them. Employers who mislead and abuse them. Policemen who harass them for bribes and immigration officials who will either deport or detain them.

The truth is, it isn’t just Malaysia or Malaysians who have distaste for refugees. Even Angelina Jolie, the UNHCR’s celebrity spokesperson, has said that her own attempts at fundraising from the Hollywood set for refugees proved so futile, she said she would have been better off giving her own money than trying to solicit it from that crowd.

Part of the reason for that is the notion of scarcity; the prevailing fear and paranoia that refugees would take from us what we need for our own people. We do not want these outsiders; we see them only as burdens and never as people.

Except of course, if they’re pretty. During the Bosnian war, plenty of Caucasian-looking Bosnians found temporary refuge in Malaysia and they were treated like beautiful, living curios. One NGO was even proposing “breeding” them with locals to produce beautiful children. How dehumanising is that; to treat human beings as though they were no different from livestock or exotic pets.

Perhaps Najib wants brownie points for helping Muslim brethren, but in that regard, why then are Palestinians who escape to Malaysia not given shelter? Why are they treated little differently from other undocumented migrants?

I guess it’s easier to care about Palestinians or Syrians when they’re on the news, but not when they’re on our doorsteps asking for food and shelter.

What I’d like to see is for agencies to stop bringing in foreign workers, for Malaysia to ratify the refugee convention and for Malaysians in general to start seeing refugees as people who, through no fault of their own, desperately need aid.

I know that’s as likely as us finding out where that donation came from, but you can’t blame this ex-UNHCR staffer from hoping. So please, before you say an unkind word about “illegals”, “Banglas” and “bloody foreigners”, turn on the news and remind yourself that the world can be a terrible, horrible place. 

It’s up to us to try and make it a little less so.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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