WE must let humanity prevail over often baseless concerns of national insecurity in our treatment of refugees, United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) representative in Malaysia Richard Towle told a crowd at The Refugee Fest in Kuala Lumpur on Thursday.
In his opening statement, Towle spoke of society’s choice when it comes to our handling of the refugee community, saying it was a test of our resolve as a civilised species as to whether we choose to treat the vulnerable with compassion and humanity over unsubstantiated national security threats and our inclination to demonise.
“The issue of refugees is truly a global one and how we respond to it globally reflects how we are as people,” he said.
“If we respond – despite the threats to global insecurity – in a way that is humanitarian and respects human rights, then I think that is a badge of us as a civilised species.”
“Any discussion that puts the human being first, puts the women, the family, the children and the vulnerable first, and then looks at the implications for security as a secondary consideration, has got it the right way around.”
His comments come two weeks after the Malaysian government urged the refugee agency to share its database of some 150,000 refugees and asylum seekers in an effort to prevent Islamic State militants from entering the country.
Deputy Home Minister Nur Jazlan Mohamed told Channel NewsAsia the authorities are concerned some militants may have slipped into Malaysia and obtained a UNHCR refugee card to move freely in the country, despite little evidence to support this claim.
Towle was quick to remind attendees refugees are often the victim of such terrorist groups, pointing out IS has been the cause of many refugees having to flee their homeland for fear of “persecution and terrorism” by the terror organisation.
“And yet, when refugees come to other parts of the world and say ‘help’, they’re accused of being members of IS (Islamic State) and promoting the terrorist cause. The very first victims are victimised again,” Towle said.
Speaking specifically of the refugee experience in Malaysia, Towle claimed it was a “complex and difficult place for refugees to live” as there is an “unfair assumption” refugees are causing a huge problem to national society.
Towle’s comments highlight an apparent disconnect between society’s opinion of refugees and the human face behind the crisis – a feature Refugee Fest organiser Mahi Ramakrishnan – sees as a driving force behind the distrust of locals towards them.
“There has to be much more awareness about the refugee crisis and there have to be more opportunities for local people to get to know refugees,” Mahi said to Asian Correspondent.
“You can have policies, whether or not you implement them is another thing, but for people to get to know refugees is the most important.”
Ramakrishnan’s hopes for the festival, whose main message is “Inclusion for a Better World’, is that it will go some way in bridging the gap between apprehension and understanding.
Events like this “connect the refugees with the outside world,” she says.
Doubting local Malaysians would be willing to go out of their way to interact with refugees or visit their settlements, she highlights the need to “build bridges between society and the refugee community.”
“Once you see them for who they are, you’ll realise they are just like you and me – ordinary people with dreams, hopes and aspirations for themselves and their children.”
In an effort to improve the situation for refugees in the country and allay fears of national insecurity, Towle calls for “solidarity” between the UNHCR and the Malaysian government.
“What we’re (UNHCR) looking for here in Malaysia is a better pact of solidarity with Malaysia; with the government, with NGOs, with civil society, all working together to address both concerns. Concerns of ordinary Malaysians about having these people in their society, but also making sure those who have no choice but to be here for a period of time are able to live in safety and dignity.”
The Refugee Fest: Inclusion For A Better World runs until Sunday.