Ugly politics in Malaysia’s inconsistent refugee policy

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Source: FMT News

PETALING JAYA: There certainly is inconsistency in the way the government deals with refugees from various ethnicities and religions.

However, say several people working with refugees or who are familiar with the situation, this is largely due to politics rather than religion.

MP Charles Santiago and lawyer Latheefa Koya feel the government’s “ad hoc” approach is geared towards scoring political points while Tenaganita executive director Glorene Das wants the government to give equal protection to all refugees regardless of race or religion.

They were commenting on an opinion piece published in Asia Times, that Putrajaya’s handling of the Rohingya refugee issue reflects the inconsistencies, and the bias, inherent in its refugee policy.

The writer, Josh Hong, had noted that Malaysia had shown solidarity with Muslim Palestinian, Bosnian and now Rohingya refugees over the years, but the same couldn’t be said of its stance towards non-Muslim refugees worldwide.

Speaking to FMT, DAP’s Santiago said the problem wasn’t that Putrajaya had adopted a bias in its refugee policy, but rather that it had tailored it for political mileage.

He said: “When you look at the Palestine and Rohingya issue, not everyone affected are Muslims. There are Christian and Jewish Palestinians, and Hindu Rohingya as well.

“The problem is the narrative which the government sets, by condemning atrocities against these people as atrocities against Muslims instead of it being a humanitarian issue.”

At the same time, he said, despite the perceived bias, Rohingya refugees in Malaysia were living in squalor with no access to jobs and education.

Last December, Malaysia officially held a protest rally against the oppression of the Rohingya people, with Prime Minister Najib Razak, Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang and his number two Tuan Ibrahim Tuan Man leading the rally which was jointly organised by Umno and PAS.

Santiago said when there were inconsistencies, the public would start to see the nature of Putrajaya’s foreign policy as opportunistic, to secure votes from Malay voters by appearing to be a defender of Muslims worldwide.

Santiago said government and religious leaders must view acts of genocide and refugee crises from a humanitarian point of view rather than through religious lenses, as it could divide Malaysians.

“Humanitarian issues mustn’t be viewed through religious lenses, because those from outside the religion will stay away from supporting it.”

Santiago said when he condemned the Myanmar government over the Rohingya issue, he received backlash from some non-Muslims because many already saw it as a Buddhist versus Muslim issue.

“And how the government and religious leaders view and portray it sets the tone for the people. As long as a humanitarian crisis is seen from a humanitarian point of view, people will support it.”

Meanwhile, Tenaganita’s Glorene Das urged Putrajaya to give equal protection and support to all refugees regardless of their ethnicity or religion.

“Refugees from Myanmar in Malaysia don’t come from only the Rohingya community. There are also refugees from the Shan, Chin and Kachin communities.

“Yet the government’s pilot project to allow refugees to work was limited only to Rohingya people.”

Glorene said the government must review and rethink its policies and practices with regard to refugees.

Putrajaya, she said, must look at the bigger picture rather than ad hoc measures and policies catering to specific groups, as Malaysia would continue to attract refugees due to the nation’s stability.

In February, Zahid had announced a pilot plan which would allow Rohingya refugees to work here.

Under this plan, 300 successful applicants were to be placed in selected companies in the plantation and manufacturing industries.

Human rights lawyer Latheefa Koya also lamented Putrajaya’s ad hoc and different policies for different refugee communities.

“Some are given accommodation, jobs, documents, access to social services while others are left to their own devices.”

She said the government’s approach was geared more towards scoring political points, whether internationally or more recently locally with the support for the Rohingya, than addressing the issues at hand.

“Refugees have been deported when it suits the government, so it’s better to have coherent and concrete policies and laws that are in line with international law.”

She added that Putrajaya should ratify the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention so that the refugees can benefit from consistent policies on their treatment and protection.

Malaysia hosts around 150,000 refugees and asylum seekers, more than a third of whom are Rohingya from Myanmar.