Details Published on Monday, 30 November 2015 08:27
Written by Intan Zulaika Arfudi
A family of Chin refugees from Burma lives in a cramped flat in Kuala Lumpur, trying to eke out a living while keeping under the official radar. Picture: John Ishii Source: The Australian
In light of the current refugee crisis affecting almost every part of the world from Western Europe, the Middle East and let’s not forget even around the fringe of our waters, governments and various organizations have been under tremendous amount of pressure in their attempt to accommodate both domestic needs and their foreign responsibilities towards refugees.
This year alone there has been an increasing number of displaced populations from war-stricken and genocide threatened countries like Syria and Myanmar, currently living in limbo with no permanent new home in sight, and it could be many more years until they find another country to start a new life .
The President of the United States of America, Barack Obama, who was in Kuala Lumpur for the ASEAN Summit 2015 in early November this year had made it a point to visit one of our local non-profit schools for children refugees, Dignity For Children, where he got the chance to spend some time with the children.
U.S. President Barack Obama greets students on a tour of the Dignity for Children Foundation, an education program for refugee and low-income children, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Obama is currently struggling with his own foreign policy issues on refugees back home. Following the Paris terror attacks this month, the US Senate has passed a House-approved bill that restricts acceptance of Syrian and Iraqi refugees, who have not been thoroughly searched by national security agencies into the US soil. This came after Obama’s commitment to let in as many as 10,000 refugees over the next year announced last September.
At the Dignity For Children centre, Obama reiterated his intentions to continue to commit to the refugees' plight. “They were indistinguishable from any child in America. The notion that somehow we could be fearful of them, that our politics would somehow lead us to turn our sights away from their plight, is not a representation of the heart of who we are,” Obama stated in reference to the children he saw at the centre.
In contrast to the hostile disagreements over refugees resettlement in the United States as well as the influx of refugees into European nations, the general public in Malaysia tends not to have such strong opinions about the refugee crisis.
In fact, they are generally unaware of it, until there emerged viral videos and horrific accounts the refugees’ sufferings like for instance, the one about the Rohingyas fleeing Myanmar on boats spotted off the peninsula’s coast last May. All of the sudden, people are concerned again and started demanding the Malaysian government to take action to accommodate these refugees, which they have tried.
As Europe and America struggle to handle its own refugee crisis halfway across the world, a similar scene, just as bad, is happening right here in South East Asia.
Last May, an estimated 10,000 Rohingyas boarded rickety boats to see refuge in neighbouring South East Asian nations and had problems seeking help resulting in a juggling act in between Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia over who will let them come ashore.
As of the end of September 2015, there are a total of 153,850 refugees and asylum seekers registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Malaysia who are still waiting to be permanently resettled. 142,630 of them are from Myanmar consisting of multiple ethnicities, mostly Muslim minorities who are under threats of persecution in their home country. Other asylum seekers came from Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Palestine among others.
The hesitation to let in more refugees in our case does not hinge on harbouring fear or distrust towards the refugees but much more on our overall incapability to take in more refugees.
The Current State Of Our Refugees
According to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugee, a refugee is defined as, “a person who, owing to a well-founded fear of being prosecuted 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, unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country,”
In comparison to economic migrants, who have the freedom of protection by their home country and are free to go back as they please, refugees instead have the right for safe asylum outside of their country’s borders.
Malaysia has quietly taken in quite a significant amount of refugees and asylum seekers under its care despite not being a signatory of the United Nations 1951 Convention relating to the status of refugees and its 1967 Protocol.
Malaysia offers at least some modicum of opportunity for Rohingya migrants. Rohingya gathered at an apartment block in Kuala Lumpur that is home to several families. Credit Mauricio Lima for The New York Times
There are still no existing legal or administrative frameworks in place in the country to address the refugee situation.
When they come into the country borders, they have to register with the UNHCR and have their claims to asylum certified before they are allowed to join the long waiting list for resettlement in another country. This often takes decades so in the meantime, they have to deal with lack of claim to rights such as housing, employment and healthcare.
Refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia are not distinguished from undocumented migrants and the only form of status they have will only be recognized if they have been registered and recognized under UNHCR.
This greatly affected them as they have limited access to legal employment due to absence of official documents, their children are not allowed access to formal education and also struggle to afford basic healthcare as their meagre salary from working on ‘dirty jobs’ are not enough to cover basic needs.
“The government does not allow us to work,” said Azeem, a young Rohingya man who fled Myanmar by sea two years ago, currently residing in a shared 2 bedroom apartment with 15 other people in Kuala Lumpur.
“I am one of the more fortunate ones as I only have to support myself but the others are struggling much worse. They have kids to feed, clothed and such.
“I work in the kitchen at a bar restaurant. My boss is nice enough to turn a blind eye on my (refugee status) card. He lives me alone as long as I show up and do my work,” added Azeem.
Azeem is one of the lucky ones. There are many of cases of refugees working ‘grey jobs’ or informal work that are exploited and taken advantage of by the employers.
They are also always at risk for arrest, exploitation, detention, and deportation among others as their status basically leave them as no different from illegal immigrants in the country, provided they prove their status under UNHCR.
Refugee children are denied formal schooling. There have been several organizations which dedicate themselves to offering basic education to these children. Unfortunately, most of these independently run, non-profit schools struggle to maintain themselves due to lack of funds and teachers.
Over 400 children of illegal immigrants mostly Chin Burmese are educated in self funded schools and child care groups the Myanmar Educational Centre in Malaysia. Picture: Stephen Cooper / DailyTelegraph
An acquaintance who is working for a local NGO specializing in providing basic education to children of refugees recalled her experience dealing with children having to abandon school to help out their families by working odd jobs.
“It is a very normal occurrence to see children as young as 10 forced to work to support his/her families. We do try to help alleviate their burden by providing basic school supplies, food, etc. basically anything to encourage them to stay out of the streets but there is only so much we can do,” expressed the volunteer teacher who rather not be named.
“Also we are always short- funded and in need of more abled teachers,” she added.
Malaysia has no refugee camps in place but instead provides the refugees and asylum seekers low cost housings in cities and towns across the country to live among Malaysia neighbours. Although providing basic housing is a crucial safety net for them and serves as a process of integration between the refugees and the local communities, these low cost housings are often overcrowded, in city slums and mostly in need of serious maintenance care.
A Rohingya woman and her child in an alley in the suburbs of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. While migrants wait for their refugee status to be determined in Malaysia, they are not allowed to work or send their children to conventional schools. Credit Mohd Rasfan/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images / NYT
Should We Accept More Refugees?
Following the exodus of people from western Myanmar 6 months ago, Malaysia, together with Indonesia announced in October they would provide temporary refuge on the condition that the refugees be resettled in another country within a year. Malaysia, along with neighbouring South East Asian counterparts, Thailand and Indonesia, has no plans to host any refugees permanently.
We all know that resettlement within a year would be almost impossible judging by the slow process of applicants seeking resettlement in the past. UN’s refugee agency and other related organizations are currently overwhelmed by the numbers that kept snowballing while thousands of decades old cases still languishing in no man's land within our shores.
In contrast, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak had announced during the United Nation General Assembly held past October that our country plans to accept as many as 3,000 Syrian migrants over the next three years to help alleviate the current global refugee crisis.
As part of our duty as a fellow Muslim nation, the Prime Minister expressed his obligations to ensure the well-being of these marginalised Syrians who are forced to flee their home due to war.
“This is why Malaysia has taken, over the years, many people fleeing war, starvation and prosecution.
“We currently have hundreds of thousands of irregular migrants, and we took in more, earlier this year when there was a dire humanitarian situation in the Andaman Sea,” the Prime Minister expressed in front of the General Assembly.
Malaysia to accept 3,000 Syrian refugees, says the Prime Minister during the United Nations General Assembly
But how will they be able to survive here in Malaysia, hanging in limbo without official legal documentations that will guarantee access to proper employment and welfare, especially with Malaysia not being one of the signatories of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees?
Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister Zahid Hamidi said the government will help aid these refugees by providing them jobs, accommodations and protection through private housing developers and government- linked companies. He also expressed the government's intention to look into the education of the children.
At a press conference after a special ASEAN Ministerial Meeting on the Rise of Radicalisation and Violent Extremism last October, the Deputy Prime Minister said, “Temporary job opportunities can be given to them until the situation is peaceful in Syria and they can go home. In the meantime, we ask Malaysians regardless of religion or political background to support the plan outlined by the Prime Minister.”
Will this be only applicable to the newly admitted Syrian refugees? What about the other 154,000 refugees and asylum seekers who are already residing and currently struggling with earning a basic living here in Malaysia?
Ms. Habsah Marjuni, chairperson of Muslim Aid Malaysia, a non – governmental humanitarian foundation that works to eradicate poverty and alleviate human suffering in the world’s poorest communities, regardless of race and religion, spoke out about the government’s decision to take in 3000 Syrian migrants and their plans to settle them here.
“I think that is fine. It is great that the government is now finally publicly recognizing the issues with the status of refugees here in Malaysia as they have addressed the refugees’ struggle with work employment and children’s education.
“However, the other 154,000 of them here in Malaysia do not have the same privileges. The government shouldn’t discriminate them,” expressed Ms. Habsah.
Muslim Aid Malaysia Chairperson, Ms. Habsah Marjuni (second from the right). Picture credit: Musilm Aid Malaysia Facebook Page
The government should allow current refugees, especially the Rohingyas to work in this country instead of depending on migrant workers coming into Malaysia.
“We have 7 million migrant workers in Malaysia today; almost half of those are illegal migrant workers.
“Instead of focusing on allocating the jobs to these migrant workers, why not give them to the refugees instead. It will certainly help them a great deal in order to support their families. They can start sending their kids to affordable private schools (since they are not allowed formal education in government schools) and besides, these people are more enthusiastic to remain in the country as they have no other options,” said the Muslim Aid Malaysia chairperson.
What We Can Do For Now?
A child in a Malaysian refugee housing space. /AAP
If we put aside the political and economical dimension of this protracted crisis and focus on alleviating the human suffering, it will go a long way towards making the refugees temporary time here in Malaysia a little more bearable.
There are many short term possibilities to increase quality of life of refugees here if the Malaysian government could consider changing the refugee laws in the country, particularly on giving them the right to work in the country legally.
Writing in the Australian National University's journal The New Mandala in an article titled "Solutions for Malaysia’s long-suffering refugees" in August this year, refugee rights campaigner Aslam Abd Jalil had proposed two solutions.
“The first is the formal registration of all refugees.
“In November 2014, in an initiative funded by the Australian Government, the Malaysian government agreed to issue refugee cards to more than 137,000 Myanmar nationals registered with the UNHCR.[This] policy should not discriminate between refugees based on their country of origin, particularly as there are many more in Malaysia from countries like Sri Lanka, Somalia, Syria, Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan.
“The second potential solution for Malaysia’s current refugee challenges is the incorporation of asylum seekers into the nation’s labour force through formal work rights. In 2014, official data recorded that of a total 6 million foreign workers, only 2.9 million were legal.
“The available potential human resource refugees represent will be wasted if they are not allowed to work. If given proper training and work permits, refugees would contribute far more to the economy than what they do at the moment.”
He is not alone in this view, with both the UNHCR and Suhakam both publicly urging the government to consider similar options in the past.
It may be awhile before Malaysian government can even consider being part of the 1951 Convention and its 1967 Protocol signatory member, which defined the rights and status of refugees, but in the meantime; they should focus on other long-term efforts to house these refugees.
- Malaysian Digest
If you would like to take part in helping out the refugees in Malaysia and do not know where to start, do visit the UNHCR Malaysia site for more information.
Muslim Aid Malaysia is among the many other local organizations that aims to enrich the lives of refugees in Malaysia. You can get involved and donate at their website here.