Malaysia is not only well-placed to take a leadership role in resolving the Rohingya issue, but it can also lead the refugee response in the region.
MALAYSIA again reiterated its condemnation of the escalation of violence against the Muslim Rohingya minority in the Rakhine state of Myanmar at the Asean Foreign Ministers’ Retreat in Yangon on Monday.
“The loss of innocent lives and the displacement of people are unacceptable,” stated Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Anifah Aman.
The meeting ended with Myanmar agreeing to allow “necessary humanitarian access” to the troubled area – for weeks various non-governmental organisations, including the United Nations and the World Food Programme, have been shut out amid reported extrajudicial killings and rapes and arson by soldiers.
Anifah had joined in the global call for unimpeded and urgent humanitarian access to the affected Rohingya, including those who have been internally displaced by military atrocities.
Malaysia’s stand on the displaced Rohingya here, however, remains vague and muted.
Interestingly, more and more ordinary Malaysians have been taking the initiative to reach out to the Rohingya refugees in this country – as well as refugees of other origins – since Malaysia officially took a resolute stand on the issue early this month.
“Positive government statements and leadership are important in changing the narrative of how refugees are treated in Malaysia,” says Richard Towle, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Representative to Malaysia.
“Now there is a fear that if you help the refugees you are breaking the law, even though that is not true – you can provide food and support to them. But if there is a more positive discourse around refugees, ordinary Malaysians will feel more inclined to help.
“If the leadership says it is good to help your refugee neighbour, it will encourage more Malaysians to offer a helping hand.”
The Rohingya – the Muslim population in Rakhine – have been forced to flee from their home for decades due to alleged state-sanctioned violence and poverty.
It is estimated that there are more than 120,000 Rohingya refugees living in Malaysia. Only 54, 856 are registered with the UNHCR in Malaysia, as of Oct 31.
As Malaysia is not a signatory to the UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol, Rohingya refugees are considered illegal immigrants, with no or few livelihood opportunities and restricted freedom of movement. But with limited opportunities of resettlement in third countries, many Rohingya refugees are forced to make Malaysia their home.
“As a community, the Rohingya may be living a safer life here than they would be in Myanmar, but they are still living a fragile and perilous life in Malaysia as well,” Towle says. “They are vulnerable and face various challenges in their daily life as they are at risk of arrest and detention, exploitation, fraud and have no access to employment, education and healthcare.”
Unquestionably, more needs to be done to improve their lot, and for years, civil society here has called for Malaysia to sign the UN convention on refugees.
While noting the importance of the convention, Towle, however, points out that Malaysia does not need to sign it to make modest and humanitarian improvements to the refugee situation in the country.
“To a certain extent, the convention has become a distraction from the important question of what we can do to improve the lives of the people who have fled their homes and taken refuge here.
“The benefits of making modest, humanitarian improvements to the refugee situation are tremendous for the country and economy, not only for the refugees,” he says.
What is needed, he stresses, is a concerted focus and attention on the refugee situation from the stakeholders, specifically the government, civil society and the UNHCR.
“There have been positive developments – we just had our first joint task force meeting with the Malaysian Government,” he says, referring to a meeting held in the week after the mass rally led by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak at Stadium Titiwangsa on Dec 4 to protest the Rohingya’s situation in Myanmar.
The task force was set up in August to look at areas of best cooperation in tackling the complex issue of refugees.
With a large number of undocumented Rohingya refugees – more than 50,000, it is suspected – living in what they describe as the grey or black market communities in Malaysia, registering them so they can get valid UNHCR identity cards is a priority for the UN agency.
Towle strongly believes that implementing a proper registration system is the most effective way of managing the Rohingya refugees here.
“If we know who is here and have their accurate biometric data, it will help the authorities to effectively deal with issues such as criminality, law and order, and other security concerns.
“By registering the refugees, you also flush them out of the dark and into the community, allowing them to be seen and counted.”
He commends the recent Government initiative to allow 300 Rohingya refugees, holding the UNHCR card, to work in the country’s plantation and manufacturing sectors. “If this pioneer project works, it can be a basis for a broader programme to provide employment for more refugees.
“An ideal situation is if all refugees can be registered to be allowed to work, as the benefits are great for all.
“We know that many refugees work anyway to survive, but in exploitative situations. If they are allowed to work here legally, there is less risk of them being arrested and less risk of them being exploited and abused in the grey shadows of the economy.”
Towle thinks giving refugees in Malaysia the right to work will also have enormous benefits for the country. “It will not only help contribute to the refugees’ own economic situation but also to the country’s economy.
“They will pay tax and the money goes into the family for better education and healthcare, making them more self-sufficient,” he says, noting that this could help solve the country’s manpower problems.
“Refugees are here, refugees want to work, and refugees work hard.... They are a ready source of labour.
“It’s a win-win situation for all: for the companies and businesses, for the government and for the refugees themselves.”
Recognising the concerns of the Malaysian people and Government, that being more benevolent to refugees here will draw more refugees to the country, Towle assures that this is highly unlikely, pointing out the current situation in Rakhine.
“The motivation for the Rohingya to flee their country is there in Myanmar right now, with the high degree of insecurity and violence, but we are not seeing anybody coming here.
“So we don’t think allowing the Rohingya refugees here to work, and giving them access to affordable healthcare and their children access to school, is going to trigger a mass invasion of refugees.
The other safeguard, he highlights, is the UNHCR. “We are the guardian of refugee protection under the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol. We are the ones who (assess them and) say who is a refugee. And that provides an effective gateway to prevent the abuse of Malaysia’s hospitality.”
Crucially, however, we need to disentangle refugees from the much larger illegal migrant worker issue here.
“I think the refugee issue in the country has become conflated with the illegal migrant worker issue and that has led to the perception that it’s growing out of control. This has had a negative impact on what has been done and what can be done for this small, vulnerable and at-risk community. Refugees are not illegal immigrants and they have different needs.”
It is estimated that more than five million migrant workers here are illegal.
“Why is it then that the negative focus is mainly on the 150,000 people that we know about, that we have registered, that we look after and that have no tax implications for the Malaysian people at all? Why is the fixation on ID cards for them?” Towle argues, underscoring the importance of changing the way refugees are thought of and treated in the region.
“Historically, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia, for instance, allowed refugees to stay in their country illegally and expected the international community to do all the work, including resettlement and looking for solutions. Those days are long gone, as the demand for refugee protection from other parts of the world, like Syria, is so much greater.”
The good news is that the UNHCR in Malaysia has “a finite group of people” to work with here, what with the geopolitical developments in the world.
“For example, out of the total number of refugees in Malaysia, there are many who in two, three years’ time may not need refugee protection because they will be able to go home, like some of the ethnic minority groups from Myanmar. They may not need our help for much longer, if we help them prepare for a new life,” he explains.
That leaves Malaysia with refugee groups like the Rohingya, Syrians, Yemeni, and Iraqis, and they are not a large number, he says. “If we can have a special programme to allow them to be registered so they can work here and get their children access to formal education, we will have a managed refugee situation here.”
Towle is confident that Malaysia has all the resources and facilities to deal with refugees.
“You can address the issue without causing negative consequences – in fact, we think only positive consequences will flow out of better cooperation between countries and agencies to address the Rohingya refugee situation.
“It’s a matter of cutting away the myths and misconceptions surrounding refugees, and saying clearly that if we ignore the problem, it won’t go away,” he says, stressing that Malaysia is well-placed to lead the response to refugees in the region on top of taking a leadership role in the region’s geopolitical situation.
Ultimately, warns Towle, in our avid determination to defend the Rohingya, Malaysia has to be careful that it doesn’t have a discriminatory, “a la carte” approach to how refugees are treated in the country.
“A programme that gives more protection to the Rohingya would be welcome, but we need to make sure that other equally deserving individuals and groups don’t fall behind.
“Some of the refugees from Syria, Yemen or Iraq could have come from a situation that is as bad as or worse than the situation in Myanmar.
“We need to remember that if you are a refugee, you are a refugee, and it’s not on the basis of colour, race, ethnic origin or religion.
“You are someone who has left your home country to escape conflict or persecution and need protection. We need to make sure all refugees, no matter place of origin, get the protection they need.”.