Sweeping dirt over the UNHCR carpet

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refugeesDemonising and splattering metaphoric dirt over international agencies such as the UNHCR and foreign nationals only serves to lower the respect and esteem in which the international community holds Malaysia, observesAngeline Loh.

The media’s capability to misinform the public should not be underestimated. A 9 April 2007 RTM Bahasa Malaysia evening news television report of a protest by a group of Myanmar refugees outside the Kuala Lumpur office premises of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was noticeably unbalanced.

The allegations of incompetence and mistreatment by the UNHCR made by this particular group and the call for the resignation of the UN agency’s representative, Dr. Volker Turk, seemed to be the main theme of this broadcast. The report did not refer to the chain of events prior to this protest that had occurred between the protesters and the UNHCR. This protest was in fact one of a string of such demonstrations that had been held outside the UN refugee agency’s office in recent months.

The story was one-sided mainly because of the noticeable absence of the UNHCR’s side of the story in this media report – except for admitting that about 40,000 Myanmar refugees had been registered by the UNHCR.

This flawed broadcast appeared to give the impression that the UNHCR was doing little to help alleviate the problems faced by the refugees and was neglecting to carry out their mandate by refusing and delaying registration of them as refugees under UN protection. This gave the public a false impression that UNHCR was not doing its job.

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On the contrary, the UN refugee agency has been actively assessing undocumented immigrants from Myanmar for refugee status and permitting them to hold UNHCR documentation, despite the obstructive actions and uncooperative attitude of the Malaysian immigration authorities, the Home Affairs Ministry and Rela. It is common and public knowledge that the Home Affairs Ministry is reluctant to recognise UNHCR’s documentation or its powers under their mandate in this country.

Refugees are seen as “illegal immigrants” under Malaysian immigration laws. There has been no attempt whatsoever to create legislation or to add new provisions to the Immigration Act to cover refugees or to make recognition of UNHCR documentation mandatory – despite the increasing influx of refugees from neighbouring Asean countries ever since the arrival of refugees from Vietnam on Malaysian shores about 30 years ago.

Three years ago, the Malaysian government promised to grant Burmese Rohingya refugees legal status by giving them identity cards and work permits (as reported in Malaysiakini in 2004). This was in fact put into action in 2006 for a brief period of two weeks, but was terminated when some problems arose. The process has since failed to be restarted; neither have the problems been dealt with. The Rohingya refugees have been left high and dry by the Malaysian government. The onus is on the Malaysian government to restart this process and give Rohingya refugees, who have been in the country for a reasonably long period, a chance to make constructive socio- economic contributions to Malaysia as permanent residents.

Influencing public perceptions

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In view of all these obstacles, it is surely unjust and misleading to cast the blame for the current alleged maltreatment of the Rohingya refugees on the UNHCR. Moreover, it is hard to believe that the UN refugee agency would intentionally violate the human rights of the same refugees they seek to protect – something which goes completely against their mandate and mission. There is no logical reason for them to do this.

The mainstream media have played a large role in influencing and shaping public perceptions of various issues and sections of society. It has, in the past, served to demonise any party and individual who has incurred government disfavour, e.g. opposition parties, particular NGOs, migrants, and Anwar Ibrahim. It has also used a variety of censorship devices to be “economical with the truth” or to conceal information from the public.

The government-controlled media has kept the lid tightly screwed on the right to freedom of expression and information (under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) of those they choose to ban from claiming it.

The double-standards used to allow or disallow free expression to selected sections of society/ individuals and the information blackouts in the mainstream media – despite creating the illusion of press freedom – are significant abuses of this Article 19 right.

Fundamental rights and freedoms under the UDHR cannot be treated as privileges selectively granted on a discriminatory basis, without any viable alternative or concrete reason for the withdrawal of such a right.

Malaysia is seen as a politically stable country in comparison to some of our Asean neighbours, particularly, Myanmar and Thailand. There is no obvious state of emergency here – except for one alleged by the Home Affairs Ministry and Immigration authorities, that the large influx of migrants seems to be a threat to national security. This appears to be mere justification for beefing up security forces and deploying Rela.

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It is for the government to realise and activate the political will to sensibly deal with existing internal problems instead of sweeping them under the metaphorical carpet, where they will accumulate and worsen over time. Moreover, demonising and splattering metaphoric dirt over international agencies such as the UNHCR and foreign nationals only serves to lower the respect and esteem in which the international community holds Malaysia. In other words,  as a member of the UN Human Rights Council, Malaysia stands to lose more by being reactionary instead of pro-active.

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