By Dennis Ignatius
One of the great failures of the former BN regime when it came to human rights was its dismal record in honouring its moral and legal obligations towards those fleeing political, religious or ethnic persecution in their homelands. For BN, it was all about political expediency instead of respect for sacrosanct principles.
Many genuine refugees and asylum seekers were hastily handed back into the hands of their tormentors, never to be heard of again. For quite a few, it resulted in long years of incarceration, torture, persecution and great anguish. That our nation was party to such terrible acts will forever be to our shame.
Among the more infamous cases were that of a Saudi blogger fleeing to New Zealand who was apprehended in Malaysia and sent back to Jeddah, several Turkish nationals living in Malaysia who were arrested in almost clandestine fashion and handed over to President Erdogan’s secret police, and dozens of Uighurs who were deported to China despite being registered with the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
The Bar Council, together with other human rights groups, has consistently appealed to the government to honour its asylum obligations but to no avail.
Najib and his colleagues in Umno were always quick to portray themselves as defenders of the ummah and of persecuted Muslims but it was all for show. When push came to shove, they quietly acquiesced the deportation of asylum seekers to curry favour with undemocratic regimes. They worked themselves into a frenzy when Muslims were ill-treated by non-Muslims but closed their eyes to the equally appalling treatment that Muslims suffered at the hands of their own Islamic governments.
A more compassionate refugee policy
What approach will the new PH government now take on the question of refugees and asylum seekers?
Malaysian human rights defenders can only hope that our democratic renewal and our own experience with political persecution will somehow translate into a more compassionate refugee policy.
Furthermore, a number of our current ministers and members of Parliament suffered political persecution and incarceration; let us hope that this issue will resonate well with them.
What is needed is a new approach that will be more welcoming of refugees irrespective of their religious, ethnic or political background. The new government is presently undertaking a much needed review of our foreign worker policy. There are, of course, too many foreigners here who shouldn’t be here. Refugees and asylum seekers, however, fall into a different category; they are not economic migrants like the vast majority of illegals but victims of oppression.
There have been long-standing calls for refugees to be given priority for temporary residence and jobs but there was never the political will to do anything about it. Perhaps the PH government, born out of our own struggle for freedom, will finally resolve to act on the issue.
Uighur asylum seekers
The first test of the new government towards refugees might come sooner than later.
At this very moment, 11 Uighur asylum seekers detained in Malaysia since early this year are facing the threat of deportation to China. The government must not accede to this request without a full and fair hearing of their circumstances.
The Uighurs, a long-oppressed Muslim minority in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region of China, are particularly deserving of protection and compassion.
According to Human Rights Watch, “Pervasive ethnic discrimination, severe religious repression, and increasing cultural suppression justified by the government in the name of the ‘fight against separatism, religious extremism, and terrorism’ continue to fuel rising tensions” in Xinjiang. The Uighurs are now one of the most persecuted people groups in the world.
While Malaysia has little power to influence events in Xinjiang, we have an obligation to provide sanctuary to Uighurs fleeing persecution provided they are not involved in terrorism or crime.
Human rights a hallmark
There are a lot of things that need to be set right in the new Malaysia. Our refugee policy, or the lack of it, is one of them. Hopefully, our new foreign minister will make this one of his priorities.
He might even want to consider setting up a human rights and refugee advisory council with representation from human rights groups and the Bar Council to help the ministry develop a coherent approach on this important issue.
Surely, one of the lessons we can learn from the dark decades of BN rule is the value of respect for human rights. Malaysia must now work with other like-minded countries to promote and advance the cause of human rights across the globe. Let that be one of the hallmarks of the foreign policy of the new Malaysia.
Dennis Ignatius is a former ambassador.