PETALING JAYA: Malaysians should take a leaf from the book of the Acehnese people on their treatment of refugees, said a human rights activist.
Lilliane Fan of the Geutanyoe Foundation for Aceh said that during the Rohingya boat crisis in 2015, the Acehnese fishermen took it upon themselves to save the Rohingya at sea.
She said that while the Acehnese themselves have suffered because of a long-standing conflict there, they also believe strongly in their adat or customary law.
“The Acehnese adat is very strong and obliges fishermen to save any life that is at risk at sea. These were the principles used by Acehnese fisherman to say we can stand up against national law cause our law is higher,” Fan said at the "Talking Refugees" conference on Wednesday.
The conference was organised by Iman Research.
The refugee boat crisis of 2015 saw many Rohingya stranded in the Andaman Sea and Straits of Malacca after the discovery of human trafficking camps in Thailand and Malaysia.
“The key message here is that local people or ordinary people can do things. Many of these fishermen are very poor. They don’t have resources. They are living in villages and have been affected by conflict.
“Many of them don’t have a stable life but they took an enormous risk. They risked their livelihoods, they risked their own lives to conduct this rescue because humanitarian response is much more important to them. If they can do something like that, what about the rest of us?” said Fan.
She said that the lesson from Aceh is that we should not be waiting for funding or changes in policy.
“Yes, all those things are important but don’t wait if there’s a humanitarian crisis,” she said.
She said that the communities in Aceh also organised activities for the refugees, enabling them to develop friendships.
Fan said this was the best way to give them community support.
“If we are serious about refugees, get to know who these people are. Get to know how you can invest in them. It’s not about charity, but it’s about empowerment and it’s about understanding where they come from, building relationships and friendships.
“Unless you have teh tarik (tea) and have a discussion with a refugee, I don’t think you can really understand what that person has been through,” she said.
As of January, there are more than 150,000 refugees registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Fan added that the youth can create spaces where there is acceptance of refugees and where people can become friends.
“You create a culture of welcome. In some places like Aceh, it exists. It’s part of education. In other places, maybe we have to work a little harder to create it,” she said.