What to do with the refugees? A proposal

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If Malaysians have so far been taught tolerance as the key to peace, now is an opportune time to learn solidarity, writes Mary Chin.

As new arrivals stream into our space, let us get our act together by first acknowledging that by the sheer scale of the problem, it is an oversized load for any country of Malaysia’s or Bangladesh’s stature.

Even Germany, Europe’s big sister, is challenged by refugee management. Let us be realistic and start working towards achievable goals.

There is a lot the government can but has not yet done. It needs to be more consistent, stop contradicting its right hand with its left, and spare NGOs from having to work around what it is or isn’t doing.

As with all irregularities we continue to encounter, let us maintain our objectivity as to which aspects are due to incompetence, which aspects are due to negligence, and which aspects are intended evil. Each cause needs a different remedy. Mix them up, and we defer the solution to eternity.

If it is due to incompetence, train them. If it is due to negligence, discipline them. If it is due to bad intentions, hammer them. Don’t hammer when it is due to incompetence.

Whether before or after the government gets its part right, we, the rakyat (the people), the NGOs and profit-making entities, have our roles to play. The most efficient solution can come by only if efforts from all channels are concerted. A concerted effort cannot begin until we stop waiting for or blaming one another, downplaying the desperate, crying need.

A Swiss flashback

Blank looks reported by aid workers administering to traumatised refugees fleeing the Myanmar-Bangladesh border bring me back to the tragic bus crash near Sierre (Switzerland) on 13 March 2012. The bus crashed head-on into the concrete wall of a motorway tunnel: 28 died; 22 were children visiting from Belgium.

Emergency services arrived within 20 minutes. The response team comprised 60 firefighters, 15 doctors, 12 ambulances, 8 helicopters, 30 police officers, 100 paramedics and three psychologists.

Twenty-eight lives near Sierre in 2012; 400,000 lives from Myanmar since 25 August 2017.

Emergency response arrived within 20 minutes for Sierre; Turkey pledged aid for the Rohingya a week later; Malaysia pledged aid a fortnight later.

What emergency service for the Rohingya if access was blocked? A multi-disciplinary response team including three psychologists? What a distant luxury.

During the Sierre tragedy, I was living in Switzerland; colleagues, friends and neighbours consumed the news seeing the children on that bus as their own, seeing those parents as themselves. Questions such as the following didn’t arise:

  • Whether people involved in the tragedy were local or from a neighbouring country (although many Europeans haven’t completely shaken off the remnants from their divisive, war-torn history).
  • Whether the victims were believers or which denomination they belonged (although many have renounced their faith either not to practise or to be atheists).
  • Whether those children had ginger hair or freckled faces (although such prejudices do at times happen).

That was solidarity.

If Malaysians have so far been taught tolerance as the key to peace, now is an opportune time to learn solidarity, particularly as our bubble of tolerance is beginning to show signs of wear and tear, even rupture. We need to stop seeing ‘the others’ in others, whichever level of tolerance we practise.

An American contrast

At the same time when the Rohingya crisis escalated, stealing the headlines was Hurricane Harvey, which messed up Houston. As disastrous as that was, support services were planned and delivered, the road to recovery was mapped out without hesitation. Not belittling the plight, just noting the contrast — the number of lives lost in Houston was tiny compared to that of the Rohingya.

If news consumers find the flood in Houston more worrying than the exodus from Rakhine, if news subscribers identify more with the flood victims than with the fleeing refugees, there then must be a multiplicative, weighting factor at work. Perhaps some sort of a formula, V = F × N, where V is the value of a collection of people, N is the headcount, F is the multiplicative factor which is not the same for American and Rohingya.

Rwandan lesson missed

As the Rakhine crisis unfolded, the world watched on, telling stories, adding tales, courting scepticism, calculating the risk of making a stand, estimating the cost of doing or even saying something.

No sense of urgency. The world waited and hesitated. She hasn’t yet learned her lesson from Rwanda. Desperate people crying for help; she didn’t hear. “No, it isn’t genocide,” she said. She decides to author episodes of history that future generations will struggle helplessly to wipe and hide.

Muslim or not

If Malaysian Muslims protest against the Rohingya persecution more than Malaysian non-Muslims do, if Malaysian Muslims receive Rohingya refugees more warmly than Malaysian non-Muslims do, we may then take a sneak peep into the mirror on the wall and catch ourselves blushing – we failed our 60 years of sovereignty as a multi-faith nation.

Likewise, we fail our 60 years of sovereignty if we give preferential treatment to selected refugees. Let us not forget refugees who are neither Rohingya nor Muslim. We mustn’t have favourites.

Whereas the Muslim identity of the Rohingya is at the core of the long-time dispute in Myanmar, there is no need to over-emphasise their Muslim identity once they arrive in Malaysia. Muslim or not, the reception and care on our part should be consistent and unperturbed.

Complexity beyond us

A bumpy trail of historical developments led to the violence escalating out of hand since 25 August. Unless we personally spent years living among their local community, none of us would be able to understand, analyse or draw any definitive conclusions on the matter.

We can diagnose, treat and heal, but there is no need to play epidemiologist here.

Typical of many Malaysians, we can be too quick to conclude. This readiness may be benign in some cases, but we do need to refrain from drawing conclusions about the Rakhine dispute. There is no need to play chief judge here.

Benign examples of over-confident judgments include Malaysians returning from holidays drawing conclusions about people whom they have neither lived with nor worked among — carving conclusions on stones with such absolute confidence – seeming to know Brits and Italians better than I, who lived and worked among Brits and Italians for more than a decade.

As a tourist or a bystander, there is no way to understand a foreign people. Let us acknowledge this and refrain from arguing our heads off over who the angels and the demons are in the Rakhine dispute. There is in fact no need for us to know who is right and who is wrong.

Let us be objective about the persecution, the exodus and the need as events unfold today. Hundreds of thousands of a people placed in another people’s crosshairs, targeted systematically for ethnic cleansing. Those hundreds of thousands happen to be Rohingya; so we need to help the Rohingya. If those hundreds of thousands happened to be Buddhist, wouldn’t we have rallied for them all the same?

Problem statement

It takes just a moment of objectivity and openness.

Among those hundreds of thousands fleeing for their lives – there is no way one can mistake non-terrorists as terrorists. These can’t possibly be terrorists. Terrorists don’t flee for their lives; they confront by giving up their lives. Terrorists don’t carry their elderly and infirm balanced on a chair suspended on a yoke supported on the terrorists’ shoulders; terrorists would let the dead bury themselves.

Seeing those yokes suspending chairs carrying the elderly and the infirm through treacherous journeys into the unknown, I shudder. My mind shuts me off, not letting me think any further. How many among us, with our middle-class rationale, would run for our lives carrying parents, neighbours, relatives or friends who can’t run?

Indeed, there’s no way for us to put ourselves in their shoes. They navigate the mud and the rough, wade the waters barefooted.

We can at least celebrate their motivation and zest for life by embarking on such a treacherous journey into yet another hungry, humiliating and unknown future (that is, if they survive) – at a time when some Malaysians can be so passionless and numb to life that, for instance, direct selling becomes their only motivation and religion to live for.

We can at least join the refugees in thanksgiving for having made it here, having survived a fateful and leaky pipe where many drown, succumb to disease or fall victim to human trafficking. Do we not treasure these survivals so precious?

Do we have that much to lose by giving others a leg up, a window of opportunity?

A Canadian feat

Last year, ordinary Canadians took 11,000 refugees to their own homes for 12 months. That embrace turned out to be a historic feat. The private sponsorship (as opposed to state-led settlement) became a shining example Australia, Ireland, Switzerland, Germany, New Zealand and Argentina took seriously. The New York Times reported, “Canada embraced Syrian refugees like no other country.”

Canadians did it in style, although compared to Germany’s long-time commitment and persistence despite saturation and opposition, Canada is a modest, latecomer in refugee relief (attributable in parts to Stephen Harper, who was prime minister for a decade).

That feat was a fulfilment of Trudeau’s promise four months after he took office. He pledged to bring in 25,000 Syrian refugees. 26,166 arrived, some of whom he greeted personally. Competing parties too pledged to bring in Syrian refugees — albeit by smaler instalments; they lost the elections.

The Canadian public thought that was the right thing to do. Canadian politicians dared to campaign for what one wouldn’t have in developed Europe. Can we hope for comparable leadership in Malaysia?

On the issue of refugees and migrant workers, we find parties and people entangled in a shoulder-rubbing dance. Politicians seek to please voters rather than to lead them. Not that voters like to defend any refugee either. Neither wants unskilled comers we can’t even squeeze for sweat and blood.

Consider statements such as “Stop asking Penang about Rohingya” and “Sarawak says no to housing Rohingya refugees”. Did Penangites and Sarawakians gratefully heave a sigh of relief – or are people suggesting anything different?

Ill-treating unwelcome arrivals is therefore the convenient sing-along – politicians and campaigners need not juggle or balance two sides (eg having to please the Malays without annoying the Chinese and vice versa). This is how refugees and migrant workers fall victim to the dark side of democracy.

Leadership

Malaysia has seen better leadership and mountain-moving semangat (motivation) than that. Perhaps, perhaps along the way we have got a little numb, a little cold, a little indifferent. All we need is a bit of a nudge, a bit of revitalisation, a bit of awakening.

Decades back, a local tycoon pledged a ringgit-for-ringgit donation towards building a cancer hospital at the time the northern region of the peninsula was crying in need of such a facility. That set people’s heart on fire. That mobilised the masses. Donations poured in. That built both the hospital and the community.

I believe:

  • nobody killed the idea at its infancy by saying, “This isn’t going to work.”;
  • nobody dismissed the public by under-estimating their willingness or generosity by saying, “Who would donate?”;
  • state and federal governments didn’t accuse each other of depriving cancer patients of funds or failing families by not preventing deaths.

Whichever way we choose to receive or not receive refugees, let us never exploit them for political gain. Let us not lose objectivity.

It is critical that we decouple refugees/migrants from would-be paid-for voters. Some discipline is in order here. Stop seeing them as BN’s guests who will get MyKad and turn up at polling stations voting for the BN. They are two separate issues here; do not mix them. Decouple them.

Revisiting the ultimatum “Stop asking Penang about Rohingya”, who are we punishing? Is the matter about settling the unsettled or about state versus federal governments?

A statement such as “Rohingyas in Malaysia should not have taken to the streets” is about the last thing we need from Suhakam. The Penang Stop Human Trafficking Campaign promptly responded with an open letter. Implications from such a dangerous statement can be long ranging and not easy to undo, particularly as many Malaysians lack objectivity and independent thinking. Some even think Suhakam is always correct.

In that lack of objectivity and independent thinking, so much is based on packaging and wrapping if not colour-coding – red versus yellow – that mutually exclusive duo – as if we are in our blue or green teams on school sports day. Sokong (support) or bantah (oppose) is so often decided based on wrapping and colour-coding, without checking the contents.

Leaders of all streams – whether political, religious, corporate or social – must not underestimate their influence and clout. Making a stand to defend the defenceless could convert many followers and change local sentiments. Even if it takes effect by merely reducing the hostility towards refugees, our society would benefit from that.

Jailing Ali Juhar Jamal Hussin for attempted suicide – what lesson is he supposed to learn? What lesson are we supposed to learn? What lesson is the world supposed to learn?

I was once admitted to the Penang General Hospital for high fever. Throughout the night new admissions joined our ward one after another. A member of staff explained that they were folks who had jumped off the bridge; that was part of the ward’s routine. How many of these folks were charged or jailed?

A personal role

What we can do? We can:

Yes, we can do all that. Meanwhile, we also have access to a handle which is more direct, that is entirely within our discretion to make a tangible and effective difference.

Besides the obvious option of donation, what else can the individual Malaysian do? A lot. Offer our best expertise without expecting monetary reward. Let the best specialists and doctors care for the refugees, to the same level we expect for our own families. Let our best teachers teach, meeting a standard on par with the home education some of us choose to give our children. Train them for sports and music the same way we nurture national and world champions.

Let the cream and cherries of our society come forward – those with the best track record, those who are well balanced and mature.

Alongside many fruit-bearing and noble voluntary efforts, many others have fallen short. Being free-of-charge has so far been the highlight. The side effect is that we end up mixing in sub-standard, third-grade, anything-goes, better-than-nothing goods and services.

Giving free services doesn’t mean that we can give people scraps, crumbs and leftovers – and feel so over-generous about it. We mustn’t lower our expectations just because something is given free. Let volunteerism pride itself by the high quality of service offered, not by the fact that it is free.

We need to overcome that mentality of giving ‘those poor things’ something which is better than nothing – and expecting them to be eternally grateful. Those ‘poor things’ might not be able to tell a genuine iPhone from a fake; they can certainly tell a competent teacher from a casual one.

Volunteers’ time is precious, and so is the refugees’. Low-quality voluntary services waste everyone’s time. If only voluntary efforts were joined and concerted, they would be most efficient.

Models: Geneva vs Vancouver

The best model I encountered is from Geneva, where an up-to-date handbook lists timetables and details of free meals, lodging and bathing facilities around the city. Services by different, independent organisations complement each other in full synchrony. No trumpets, no fuss, no big banners.

Each service operates on a different schedule, opening and closing on different days – but there is always somewhere to go for a meal, lodging or a bath. I too joined the queue and shared a meal, which turned out to be transformative.

Geneva’s services were the result of user-centred planning. It is more about the user being seen to and having somewhere to go – less about the NGO operating a service and doing its part in isolation.

Contrast Geneva’s style with Vancouver’s. Downtown Eastside (DTES) of Vancouver is home to possibly the world’s highest density of welfare services. Scan the streets and you will find some most creative agency names eg “The Door is Open”.

It was only in 2015 that a list of agencies was compiled – not by any of the agencies, not by the municipal government, not by the provincial government, not by the federal government – but by a news outlet. (Bravo, Vancouver Sun.)

Each day, a million Canadian dollars is spent on this dumping ground for Canada’s unwanted. DTES remains a hell – as it was in the beginning, is now, and probably ever shall be – unless and until each agency starts seeing itself as an instrument belonging to a grand ensemble.

Lessons are free for Malaysians to borrow and learn from.

Our choice

Presented with the refugees’ needs, as always individual Malaysians have a free pick:

A) I want to help but Najib is already doing that on my behalf by sending the Malaysian Armed Forces.
B) I will donate but first let me strike the lottery.
C) I am concerned about the refugees but let them stay where they are in the news, don’t pop out live from the screen/newspaper and spill into our country.
D) I can accept refugees into my country but keep them out of my territory.
E) All of the above after dropping the bit from “but…” onwards.

Let us never forget to give people our best. Be bold.

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Mary Chin

Dr Mary PW Chin, an Aliran member, is currently an independent scientist in Penang, having previously served in the UK and at CERN, a leading centre for scientific research. A medical, radiation and computational research physicist by profession, she spent her free time combing the poorest area of Canada street by street – a supposedly dangerous neighbourhood.

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