Malaysia’s expressions of sympathy from a distance only

Unfortunately, the government will not guarantee the safety of those in conflict zones if they arrive in Malaysia as asylum seekers and refugees, laments Angeline Loh.

Najib in Gaza
Najib in Gaza

Our Prime Minister returned from Gaza (The Star, 27 January 2012) with many stories to tell of the suffering that prompted him to announce his deeply felt sympathy for the besieged Palestinians in the Occupied Territories.

Malaysia, despite so many unsettled problems at home, has shown compassion and magnanimity towards our Muslim brothers and sisters living in certain conflict zones in Asia and the Middle East. The Rohingyas in Rakhine State, Myanmar have had humanitarian aid showered on them from the compassion and charity of our government. Similarly Malaysians have joined international humanitarian convoys over land and sea taking much needed aid to Palestine, with the blessings of our government.

There has been great fanfare and an outpouring of sympathy for those suffering in these conflict zones, which whether sincere or otherwise, they justly deserve. The drama has been pretty convincing, and no doubt, the international community is impressed. How deep is this compassion and generosity? Do Malaysian authorities really care about these besieged peoples?

Yet, since the arrival of the first asylum seekers and refugees, as such, to our shores about three decades ago, the government has made no move to permit the legal recognition of asylum seekers and refugees in Malaysia. Instead, it has, even now, put them into the category of “illegal immigrants” without any hint of compassion or understanding of their plight. These are not economic migrants, for the primary reason that they are here, not intentionally to make money, but because they are fleeing a life-threatening situation in their homelands. They can’t return unless circumstances become more stable and safe.

We know what is happening in Rakhine State, Myanmar, where ethnic Rohingyas are being made stateless by their own government. Massacre and all manner of inhumanity is taking place there, despite the alleged “reform” measures launched by the Myanmar government; seemingly supported by the ordinary Myanmarese people, and the international community at large. However, reports of slaughter and armed conflict still emerge from various ethnic provinces besides those from Rakhine/Arakan State (Dictator Watch 2012).

The conflicts in Palestine are long standing and well known to the world. The suffering of all Palestinians is beyond imagination, especially for those who have never experienced any kind of war. Recent conflicts continue erupting in Egypt, Syria, and Mali. Some 700,000 are reported to have fled from Syria to Jordan and neighbouring countries for safety. The UN Refugee Agency reports that its resources are barely sufficient to provide basic necessities for this multitude on the borders of Syria, as well as those fleeing conflict situations in Mali (UNHCR Newsletter 2012) and other hotbeds in Africa.

Still, the government views those coming to our territory seeking safety as “illegal immigrants” having totally no rights even to survive here. Malaysia doesn’t want refugees to seek safety here.

Refugees (including those with official UNHCR status) are treated as undocumented migrants, accused of threatening to ‘burden’ the country’s welfare system and rival citizens for a share in our national economic wealth.

So they are denied even basic rights to earn a living, education for their children, shelter, and free access to medical treatment and health care. Even the right of access to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), although apparently easier now, is not legally guaranteed by immigration detention centre authorities.

Undocumented migrants (“illegal immigrants”) are also open to arrest by local security enforcers like Rela, Municipal Council enforcers, police and immigration enforcers.

Refugees and asylum seekers’ hopes of finding even temporary sanctuary in Malaysia are often dashed when the reality of their legal status kicks in. They continue to struggle to survive in this country of peace and apparent plenty. Whilst many would admit to a better more peaceful environment here, they still live in fear of raids, arrests, detention in police lockups and IDCs, extortion by corrupt parties, human traffickers and forced repatriation in violation of refugee rights.

A group of Uighur refugees had been forcedly returned to China very recently (Human Rights Watch, 3 Feb. 2013). This has happened to other confirmed refugees in Malaysia in the past few years.

Plea for basic human rights to survive

In 2006, the government consented to allow Rohingya refugees IMM 13 visa status to permit them to take up employment and their children access to education, possibly, in local schools. That effort, was short lived because of alleged corruption and abuse of the registration system run by local authorities collaborating with Rohingya community leaders. Six years later, the government still hasn’t taken any measures to ensure the absence of corruption in the process, which was stopped and seems to have been quietly forgotten.

When open conflict began in Rakhine/Arakan State in mid-2012, this option for the Rohingya refugees who are still stateless was not even mentioned by any party, government or non-governmental organisation. In January, the Myanmar Ethnic Rohingya Human Rights Organization, Malaysia (Merhrom) made a public appeal to the government to re-instate the IMM 13 process for their community (Merhrom press release, 20 January 2013). So far, there seems to have been no reply to this appeal by the government. Resettlement of Rohingya refugees to third countries is not an ideal option as Rohingya people face several disadvantages at home and abroad due to ethnic and religious discrimination.

But it is not only the Rohingyas but other refugee groups in Malaysia who have run up against this barrier to find a safe haven, albeit temporarily, in this country. This situation begs the question of why PM Najib visits war-torn countries like Palestine and ships loads of humanitarian aid to Rakhine State, Myanmar, expresses solidarity and sympathy with those suffering in those far away lands, but persists in calling them “illegal immigrants” in this country.

Moreover, why does Malaysia refuse to legally recognise asylum seekers and refugees as another category of migrants who are not economic migrants or ratify the 1951 Refugee Convention, yet goes to great lengths to publicise its sympathy, solidarity and compassion for those in these conflict zones?

Ambiguous citizenship

Refugees and migrant workers do not necessarily want to be citizens of this country. Those who are stateless and have lived here for 10 years or more may consider settling here, if permitted to. But if the situation in their homelands became safe and a real peace is achieved, they would choose to return to their roots. This is only natural for all people, with few exceptions.

We must be very clear, that citizenship of this country is not easily acquired even by documented expatriates, foreign spouses, or even long-term permanent residents. Therefore, the play on migrants and foreigners resident in this country for a relatively short term, yet receiving citizenship, albeit temporarily, is highly irregular and unlawful (The StarOnline, 30 January 2013).

To further confuse legitimate Malaysian citizens, who are rightly angered at the creation of this ‘privileged group’ of foreign migrants, this measure is ‘coincidentally’ instituted prior to a general election. Notice that there appears to have been no due process followed, as in, our parents and grandparents time, where every citizenship applicant had to go for various interviews with the authorities, to be vetted for citizenship (theSun, Citizen Nades, 22 January 2013).

It was not a matter of receiving papers or an identity card but to determine if these applicants were sincere in wanting to permanently call this their homeland, remain loyal, work for the good of the country and its people, uphold true and just values, and the constitution of this land.

The distribution of temporary identity cards (The StarOnline, 30 January 2013), although illegal, to foreigners (who may not be aware of the implication that their so-called ‘ limited citizenship’ with the privilege to vote is not real citizenship, but a means of rigging the election process) deceives them into believing that Malaysia approves dual citizenship. This is certainly not the case, as no law recognising dual citizenship has been enacted in this country by due process. If Malaysians themselves opt to use the passports of other countries, they are obliged to return their Malaysian passports and identity documents to the government of this country, apparently surrendering Malaysian citizenship.

What exactly is the message that PM Najib is trying to send out to the rakyat and the international community by making his magnanimous visit? Simply to show his solidarity and support for those suffering in Palestine and the Occupied Territories? Perhaps, he wants the world to think it cannot do without him in brokering peace in the Middle-east? If that is the case he should go to Syria and Egypt as well to broker peace there. Does the PM think that this show of solidarity with Palestine against Israel makes him a peace broker at all? A peace broker has to be on neutral terms with both sides and is obligated to speak to both sides. So what really is this gesture for?

The trip, which eats further into our nation’s resources, seems to make only one message loud and clear: Malaysia sympathises with the plight and suffering of people in conflict zones, but will not guarantee the safety of those same people if they arrive in Malaysia as asylum seekers and refugees. In Malaysia, asylum seekers and refugees are “illegal immigrants” because they are undocumented, and so are unwelcome here.

Isn’t this a fine example for Malaysia to set? Exhibiting such hypocrisy and inviting the world to take a good look at it? The rakyat still want to know the reason for this apparently superfluous trip overseas when the federal government debt is probably higher than the 54 per cent of GDP reported last year.

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Angeline Loh
Angeline Loh, a former long-serving Aliran executive committee member, writes regularly for Aliran. WIth a background in international human rights law, she champions the rights of those who are often forgotten or marginalised in society.

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