A few weeks ago on the night of Maal Hijrah, the Immigration Department raided a village in Bagan Dalam, mainland Penang and rounded up about 80 “illegal immigrants”. Sixty of them were refugees and asylum seekers which included women and children. A majority of refugees living in this community were Rohingya Muslims who, as we know, are regarded as the most persecuted and most vulnerable communities in the world.
Just last month, the government surprised the entire nation by saying that our country would “open its doors to 3,000 Syrian migrants over the next three years to help alleviate the refugee crisis”.
Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak said this at the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly:
“This is why Malaysia has taken, over the years, many people fleeing war, starvation and persecution. We currently have hundreds of thousands of irregular migrants, and we took in earlier this year when there was a dire humanitarian situation in the Andaman Sea.”
However, the refugee crisis that occurred several months prior to the UN General Assembly, painted a very different story. News broke out of how thousands of Rohingya refugees who had sailed for months in dingy little boats were turned away and pushed back out to sea by governments from the surrounding region. This contentious move was seen as unjust, cruel and contradicted democratic principles on which our nation was founded.
The recent raid in Bagan Dalam simply verifies the insincerity of tackling the refugee crisis in a more humane manner. It is time for the government to seriously look into ratifying the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees which is an important piece of legal document that defines a refugee, their rights and the legal obligations of states.
Accordingly, the term “refugees” applies to any person who “owing to 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 sad reality is that as a nation, we appear to be tip toeing until something “gives” or worst yet, ignoring the gravity of the refugee crisis in our homeland altogether.
In the quest to seek safer pastures, thousands of refugees risk their lives as they embark on hazardous journeys on rickety boats to seek refuge in neighbouring countries. Surely they deserve better than the current treatment to which they are subjected.
The discrimination and inequality faced by the Rohingya Muslims paints a very bleak picture for the Asean community – it also unravels hidden xenophobia and candidly shows how we treat one another based on the colour of our skin.
According to UNHCR, currently the number of refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia is about 270,621 – these numbers also include stateless persons and there are about 50 million refugees worldwide.
One cannot deny that there is a need to create a mechanism that can allow UNHCR to speed up the process of documenting the thousands of refugees who are currently on Malaysian soil. There is an absolute urgency to tackle this issue with earnest for fear that this crisis may one day become beyond intractable.
The government can no longer stay mum on this issue and must be held accountable. Walk the talk and provide relief and rehabilitation to displaced persons regardless of where they come from. – October 30, 2015.