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Published: Thursday May 21, 2015 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Thursday May 21, 2015 MYT 7:11:50 AM

Tackling the Rohingya ‘problem’

We could have signed the United Nations Convention on Refugees and we could also have dealt with the source of the problem.

IF there is one thing that Malaysians are very bad at, it is preventing something bad before it happens.

We treat everything as if it was fated to happen, and nothing could be done to prevent it.

Thus, if there is a fatal car crash, there is no mention of the seat belts that could have saved lives. If kids get brutally bullied in schools, it is treated as a one-off incident rather than a problem that should be tackled in a comprehensive way.

Even with a preventable disease like HIV/AIDS, nobody wants to do practical prevention work. It’s as if by instituting prevention policies, we are admitting we have a problem and that would be bad for our image.

Therefore, it’s better to not do any prevention work and allow things to get to such a head that our image, such as it is, goes down the tubes.

Thus, it is with our latest Rohingya “problem”. The issue is not new and has been festering for decades.

Persecuted in Myanmar, the Rohingyas, along with other Burmese minorities, have been making their way here for a long time.

We are not the only country “targeted” by them. There are many refugee camps in Thailand already.

But knowing their desperate need to escape, human traffickers have taken advantage of the situation and promised, for a sum of money, to take the Rohingyas to Malaysia where apparently there is a population hungry for cheap labour.

I don’t know why the early Rohingya arrivals have not written home to tell the truth about their situation in Malaysia, that we are not as welcoming as they thought.

As Malaysia has not signed the United Nations Convention on Refugees, all such arrivals are treated simply as illegal immigrants with all the stigmatising connotations.

They cannot work, they cannot go to school, they cannot go to our hospitals, their entire existence is dependent on the charity of some non-governmental organisations and yet we complain that they seem to be always behaving as if they’ve done something wrong.

Pregnant refugee women ­cannot go to our hospitals to deliver their babies safely because they face arrest. Then, we tut-tut if we find dead babies, and possibly their mothers, in some bush somewhere.

But I suppose even Malaysian unfriendliness is preferable to the outright murderous hostility they face back in Myanmar.

All this could have been ­prevented of course if only we were not so averse to prevention. We could have signed the UN Convention and that would have enabled us to treat these refugees as people in need, rather than as criminals.

We could have dealt with the source of the problem, the way Myanmar has treated its minorities, including by simply declaring people who have lived there for hundreds of years non-citizens with merely a stroke of the pen. But then, who’s to know if some of us wouldn’t have done the same thing if we were in the same position?

After all, we’re constantly threatening our own minorities to go back to “where they came from”. Could it be that our reluctance to deal with Myanmar is because actually, we “understand”?

Most Malaysians are unaware that we have some 140,000 refugees already in our country if you just count those registered with the UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency.

They come from many different countries, most escaping conflict.

Would you not try to take your family to safety if you faced annihilation every day? Some people have asked why, since these refugees are mostly Muslim, don’t Muslim countries take them? For one thing, some of these refugees are escaping Muslim countries in conflict and there are many countries near them that are already housing refugees by the millions for decades already.

For another, some third countries are picky about who they will take in, and poor Muslims with not much skills tend to be very low priority.

In any case, refugees choose countries to escape to based on their own means. Poor Rohingyas are unlikely to choose Australia because it is really beyond their reach.

In any case, 140,000 refugees is a pittance compared to the estimated 16.7 million refugees worldwide at the end of 2013.

Believe it or not, the country with the most number of refugees in 2013 was one that is poorer than us, Pakistan, with 1.6 million.

Afghanistan is the largest source country for refugees though Syria must surely be exceeding even that by now. According to the UNHCR, “conflict and persecution forced an average of 32,200 persons per day to leave their homes and seek protection elsewhere, either within the borders of their countries or in other countries.”

Since we’re very proud of our stability and relative prosperity, it makes sense that people like the Rohingyas prefer us to other countries. But what a shock they will get.

Our government seems quite happy to let people die of starvation and exposure out in the open sea because apparently that’s what we Malaysians want.

The fact that so many Malaysians are appalled by this, and are mobilising to help them, shows how untrue this assertion is. The Rohingya “problem” is not going to go away just because we refuse to help them.

Saying that they will keep coming if we feed and shelter them is being simplistic. As long as their situation in Myanmar is dire, they will keep getting into flimsy boats and coming to our shores.

So if we’re happy to have dead bodies constantly wash up on our beaches, then we can keep turning our heads the other way.

> Marina Mahathir is a human rights activist who works on women, children and HIV/AIDS issues. Her column in this newspaper goes back 25 years and has likewise evolved because, in her own words, “she probably thinks too much for her own good.” Marina continues to speak out and crusade for causes she passionately believes in. The views expressed here are entirely her own.

Tags / Keywords: Marina Mahathir, columnist

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