Time To Be Human

The refugee problem in South- East Asia is enormous, and calls for bold measures from governments and Asean are more needed than ever.

At a refugee camp in Darfur, Sudan. Many of the inhabitants have lived here for close to 10 years after fleeing conflict in their villages.

This century, though new, has nevertheless seen scientific and technological progress beyond imagination. Today, information is transferred at lightning speed, instantaneously connecting billions of people to each other through a myriad of mobile gadgets. We have even landed a robot in Mars and recently discovered evidence of water on the Red Planet. With human landings being planned, the colonisation of space no longer seems like a sci-fi fantasy.

Yet, before we get carried away by a utopian vision about the final frontier, the dystopian reality here on Earth is that despite thousands of years of human civilisation, we have yet to learn to live together without violating each other’s fundamental civil liberties and human rights.

Human Rights Violations around the World

Take, for example, this passage from the African Union report on atrocities committed in the South Sudan Civil War, released not too long ago:

The stories and reports of the human toll of the violence and brutality are heartwrenching. People being burned in places of worship and hospitals; mass burials; women of all ages raped, both elderly and young. Women described how they were brutally gang-raped and left unconscious and bleeding. People were not simply shot, they were subjected, for instance, to beatings before being compelled to jump into a lit fire1.
If the savagery above is not compelling enough, the report even quoted investigators who “heard of some captured people being forced to eat human flesh or forced to drink human blood2”.

The humanitarian disaster in Sudan is by no means over. UN agencies now warn of an impending famine in areas racked by conflict, while many remain displaced, hiding in swamps and eating water lilies to survive.

Another conflict, perhaps more relatable to us here in Muslim-majority Malaysia, is the Syrian crisis. To provide some context about how severe the situation is, let’s remind ourselves that the Haitian Earthquake affected 3.5 million people, Hurricane Katrina affected 1.7 million people, while the Indian Ocean Tsunami, which we all remember all too well, affected five million people. In Syria, 12 million people have been directly affected by the ongoing war, about half of them children.

Despite the scale of the unfolding crisis, the truth is that very few of us paid it much attention until the now-infamous photo of the dead Syrian infant, washed up on the beach, went viral. The poor child, whose heartbreaking image I am sure now remains etched in our minds, was one of 12 Syrians fleeing the war, attempting to make their way to the Greek island of Kos for shelter and safety. This is a tragic fate for the child, but one that is not much worse than those suffered by millions of others from the Levant.

On two occasions last year I had the chance to engage personally with Syrian refugees. In April I visited the Zaatari Refugee Camp in Mafraq, Jordan, where hundreds of thousands of displaced Syrians now live in a self-sufficient community run by Unesco and the Jordanian government. More recently, I visited a Syrian refugee school in Istanbul, Turkey.

What was most impressed upon me on these two visits was the issue of education, something that perhaps many of us take for granted here in Malaysia. In Zaatari, our delegation had the opportunity to hold a brief dialogue with young Syrians of universitygoing age. Besides obvious stresses caused by displacement, their largest frustration was that they could not fulfil their desire to further their studies and achieve their ambitions.

A school for refugee children in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, close to the border with Syria.

The fact is that there are currently two to three million Syrian children whose education is in limbo. Non-governmental efforts such as the privately run school for Syrian children that I visited in Istanbul are few and far between, or at least not nearly enough to provide for the huge numbers of refugee children who require education. This is most unfortunate, because a young and educated workforce is exactly what Syria will need if they are to rebuild their country in the future. As it stands, the UN estimates that the war has reversed 10 years of progress in education for Syrian children3.

Besides the apparent impediment to social mobility arising from lack of access to education, there are many other pressing concerns as well. Malnutrition, cholera and other diseases now threaten many Syrian refugees, many of whom live in abysmal conditions with poor sanitation, on the run and with no future in sight. This also sets the conditions for exploitation, which comes in the form of dangerous and demeaning labour for very little pay, as well as sexual abuse, often of young children. In desperation, many parents resort to marrying their daughters off, some of whom are as young as 13 years old. While they believe that this may protect their daughters from molestation, child marriages lead to other issues, such as domestic abuse.

Rohingya: The World’s Most Persecuted Minority

Sudan and Syria are no doubt distant to many of us, but the fact is that our own region is not immune to humanitarian crises. Closer to home, the Sri Lankan Civil War has claimed up to 100,000 lives over more than two decades, and right at our doorstep, we have the Rohingya crisis that has now spilled over to neighbouring countries as refugees flee from state-sponsored persecution.

Various reports have quoted UN sources as saying that the Rohingya are one of, if not “the world’s most persecuted minority4”. Said to constitute seven per cent of the total Myanmar population, their exact numbers are unknown because the majority-Buddhist Myanmar government intentionally excludes the Rohingya, a Muslim minority, from the national census.
The parochial nature of their plight is a sad one, especially when one considers that the identity of South-East Asia as a region is defined very much by the inherent social and cultural diversity of its population, both indigenous and immigrant. Unfortunately, while hundreds of other ethnic groups are able to call South-East Asia their home, the Rohingya cannot shake off the label of being unwanted guests.

Rejected by their own country, Myanmar, which refuses to recognise them as citizens, and subjected to victimisation in the form of rape, arson, murder and large-scale land confiscation, their attempts to seek refuge in neighbouring countries have been met by shut doors. Those who manage to make it into other countries find not solace but are instead treated like illegal aliens, and in some cases even worse than that.

Today, it is estimated that 140,000 Rohingya, slightly more than 10% of their entire estimated population, is internally displaced. Tens of thousands others have escaped to neighbouring countries while thousands more have taken to the seas in overcrowded boats, a voyage often facilitated by human traffickers intent on profiting from their desperate “cargo”. Hundreds have been reported to have died at sea, and those who have not perished remain trapped on board boats with little food and water.

Malaysia, of course, has found itself in the thick of the Rohingya crisis, not only as an unwitting destination for its refugees, but sadly also as a facilitator of human trafficking. Earlier last year, authorities admitted to the shocking discovery of 139 mass graves in 28 abandoned human trafficking camps in Padang Besar and Wang Kelian, which lie on the Malaysian side of the Thai border.

Most of these camps were used by traffickers to house Rohingya refugees, who would only be released once their relatives had paid a ransom. Unsurprisingly, many died from starvation and disease, as deduced from the “hundreds of skeletons” found in the mass graves. The discovery of these deplorable camps immediately highlights the fact that Malaysia was no passive actor in the crisis, especially when it was reported that most of these camps had been operating freely for at least five years.

There is no way that the existence of so many camps could have gone unnoticed by our security forces. True enough, initial investigations and the subsequent arrest of 12 police officers point to the existence of a nefarious web of human traffickers involving perpetrators on both sides of the border and, disgracefully, complicity on the part of Malaysian enforcement agencies and border security personnel.

A Rohingya child begging on the streets of KL. Rohingya refugees have no legal access to basic education, healthcare and jobs, thus increasing their risk of exploitation.

Weaknesses in Our Current Approach

Weaknesses in Our Current ApproachBesides the obvious security issues and the repulsive human trafficking problem that has emerged, the Rohingya crisis has also highlighted serious weaknesses in how Malaysia as a state, and indeed Asean as a region, deals with both the gross violation of human rights in a fellow Asean country, as well as the internal management of refugees.

Firstly, the treatment accorded to refugees in this country appears to be completely arbitrary, depending on their country of origin, ethnic background and number. In the 1990s, hundreds of Bosnian refugees were given asylum and government assistance in Malaysia. Prior to that, our government also helped to resettle 10,000 Cambodian Muslims and 120,000 Muslim refugees fleeing southern Philippines. More recently, our government also announced that we would be accepting 3,000 Syrian refugees.
Unfortunately, the Rohingya have not been welcomed in quite the same fashion. In fact, when the Rohingya began to appear in boats outside our shores, there was a great initial reluctance to allow them ashore, even if the alternative meant certain peril for them.

Numbering an estimated 100,000 in Malaysia, the Rohingya refugees are considered undocumented migrants, which means that they are not differentiated from other illegal immigrants. Therefore, these refugees, including children, have no legal access to basic education, healthcare and jobs, thus increasing their risk of exploitation.

These conditions perpetuate a vicious cycle. Adult refugees are denied legal employment, which means they cannot earn money to pay for many basic necessities including healthcare that already costs more because subsidised rates do not extend to foreigners, much less illegal ones. As a result, many of them end up working illegally, often in highrisk and low-paying jobs. Compounding this, their lack of documentation also makes them easy targets for police abuse and general corruption.

Without proper laws and standard operating procedures to guide and govern the handling of undocumented migrants and refugees in particular, the problem will no doubt worsen. With close to 200,000 refugees and asylum seekers of various nationalities now in Malaysia, living with minimal rights and with little access to basic amenities, it is only a matter of time before the situation brings socioeconomic problems that will invariably affect Malaysians. If anything, the string of grisly murders that took place in Penang last year when groups of Myanmar nationals ganged up to kill their fellow citizens is a case in point.

Will Hosting Refugees Result in a Net Gain or Net Loss?

There are, of course, understandable concerns about a potential “refugee invasion” if we were to open our doors as a host country for refugees. However, while some of these concerns are valid, many are actually debatable. For example, in the event of an influx of refugees, the three main concerns are that too many refugees would impair the economy, steal jobs away from locals and become a financial burden on the public purse.

Yet, if we were to study the experiences of the three countries that absorbed the brunt of the Syrian refugees, we would find that their economic performances in the past two years have, contrary to popular assumptions, improved significantly. Lebanon’s economy, for example, is slated to grow at 2.5% this year, which is its highest rate since 2010, despite the fact that they accepted 1.1 million refugees, making up about a quarter of their population. Jordan, meanwhile, took in 10% of its population in refugees, yet continues to grow resiliently. Turkey’s growth in the last two years has also been consistent, further boosting the premise that an influx of refugees is capable of generating increased demand for local services and locally produced products, thus resulting in a net economic gain for the host country5.

A more valid concern is that of job competition. On this issue, too, the Syrian refugee experience has shown a positive net impact on the host country’s labour markets. In Jordan, for example, unemployment has not increased in areas where Syrians have resettled, as most Syrian refugees ended up taking up low-skilled jobs that Jordanians tended to avoid. In Turkey, although some low-skilled workers were displaced by the refugees, especially in the agriculture sector, this actually drove Turkish workers to get retrained and consequently acquire betterpaying jobs in the formal sector6.

The third concern is that the refugees would be a great financial cost to the host country. On this, too, Turkey’s experience has shown that it is not necessarily the case. Despite spending more than five billion Euros to extend free healthcare and education to registered refugees as well as to provide some of the best refugee camps in the region, there is no evidence to suggest that the 1.7 million Syrian refugees have burdened the country’s finances unduly.

In advocating a more systematic approach towards handling refugees and dispelling the economic myths associated with their inward migration, I am not saying that we should advertise ourselves as a refugee centre. Rather, it is about acknowledging the fact that Malaysia is already host to about 200,000 refugees, a number that is growing by the day.

What is clear is that ignoring them is no solution, as it would eventually result in socioeconomic problems for the country as well. In contrast, the experiences in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey have shown that integrating them could very well result in net gains rather than losses.

Security presence is heavy at the Rohingya camps.

Dealing with the Problem

If we wish to address the matter of refugees seriously, then the first step is for the government to adhere to international standards. For a start, we should sign and ratify the UN Convention on Refugees, a multilateral treaty promulgated 65 years ago in 1951, which defines who a refugee is, spells out his or her rights, and determines the responsibilities of the asylum-providing countries. This Convention is based upon the 1949 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which recognises the right of persons to seek asylum from persecution in other countries.

Once signed and ratified, our domestic laws must then be amended to incorporate the provisions of the Convention. Furthermore, it is critical that our laws make a clear distinction between refugees, asylum seekers and undocumented migrants. Under our current legal regime, they are all considered illegal and are subject to deportation, detention and abuse by law enforcement agencies.

At the same time, the human trafficking problem demands an immediate and thorough response. The integrity of our borders must be enhanced, and existing personnel must be revamped in light of the shocking revelations that imply collusion. Swift action must be taken against those found guilty, and steps must be taken to improve security protocols and monitoring, including cooperation with affected state governments. At the same time, international agencies such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees must be roped in to help monitor the situation.

As for the root of the problem itself, it is clear that part of the blame lies on the Asean policy of non-interference. Simply downplaying the blatant persecution of ethnic or religious minorities as someone else’s internal problem would not only allow the problem to fester, but would, as the case of Myanmar has proven, eventually result in a humanitarian crisis that would spill over into neighbouring countries.

Therefore, treating the Rohingya crisis as if it was an isolated problem will not resolve the situation. Instead, a multilateral and Asean-centred strategy of engagement with Myanmar is required in order to tackle the problem at the root. There is a positive precedence for this. The 2008 Cyclone Nargis incident revealed how Asean’s “constructive engagement” resulted in Myanmar allowing the distribution of aid inside their country after previously rejecting all other international offers of aid.

Firm diplomatic dialogue instead of coercive measures such as economic sanctions or diplomatic isolation will have greater chances of success. After all, Myanmar’s recent general election marks the culmination of years of continuous effort to prod the process of democratisation along. We need to build upon this progress.

What is clear, however, is the need for Asean to move away from its non-interference policy, especially in the face of clear human rights violations. On this front, Malaysia needs to exert more pressure and perhaps even take the lead in engaging Myanmar on the persecution of its minorities. At the same time, coordinated multilateral efforts are also required to address the growing problem of human trafficking in the region.

At the end of the day, there should be no compromise when it comes to defending humanity. After all, as Nelson Mandela once opined, “To deny people their human rights is to challenge their humanity.”

1 www.nytimes.com/2015/10/29/world/africa/southsudan- war-african-union-report.html?_r=1
2 Ibid.
3 www.worldvision.org/news-stories-videos/syriawar- refugee-crisis
4 See www.unhcr.org/cgi-bin/texis/vtx/refdaily?pass =52fc6fbd5&id=5445f0238 and www.amnesty.org. au/refugees/comments/35290/
5 www.brookings.edu/blogs/future-development/ posts/2015/09/16-economic-impact-refugees-cali
6 www-wds.worldbank.org/external/default/ WDSContentServer/WDSP/IB/2015/08/24 /090224b083091fbc/1_0/Rendered/PDF/ The0impact0of00Turkish0labor0market.pdf

Zairil Khir Johari is MP for Bukit Bendera, Penang, and executive director of Penang Institute.

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