Taking cheap shots at defenceless refugees

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Angeline Loh takes issue with The Star for an article which she feels promotes xenophobia towards Myanmar refugees, many of whom are forced to beg because they are unable to work here.

It was as if The Star had run out of news on 7 April 2010, it had to take a cheap shot at defenceless Myanmar refugees in Klang. Star Probe appears to have nothing better to do than to choose refugee communities to vent their suppressed frustrations in a politically xenophobic way.

In this terribly one-sided article, it was alleged that “the Myanmar community in Klang who have made begging their livelihood claim that the lack of job opportunities had forced them to resort to it”. (The Star, 7 April 2010, p N4 “They’re begging to stay alive”)

The opening sentence already reflects an arbitrary pre-judgment of refugees who are struggling to survive being denied the basic human right to work and right to education by authorities in this country.

Although the interview with the refugees brought out the reasons why they had been forced to resort to such humiliating means to survive, the one-sidedness of the article remained un-remedied as there was misinformation interspersed with accurate information.

Some of the most misleading statements made were by Selangor Welfare Department Director Adnan Abu Bakar. The article made out that the refugees were merely soliciting public sympathy to “get-rich-quick” and that begging was a lucrative means of doing this. The Welfare Department Director said “the sight of women begging with their children was just too much for Malaysians to bear”. And that “with Malaysians being a generous lot”, there was “good money to be made from begging”.

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He continued, “Malaysians are kind and highly sympathetic, especially towards women and children. So many (refugees) take advantage of the situation to earn easy money.”

The reader should keep in mind that the refugees had explained that they were legally not permitted to seek permanent employment or to trade: “We are not allowed to work or to do business,” said Sofinah, 34, a Myanmar refugee (The Star, 7 April 2010)
Moreover, the general public is in no way forced to be generous to beggars. They always have the choice to ignore or avoid them. To drop in a few coins for any beggar comes from an individual’s kind-hearted choice to be generous.  

These statements by the Welfare Department Director expose the authorities’ ignorance of the plight of refugees as well as a lack of sympathy and understanding of their fight for survival. The continuing criminalisation of undocumented migrants and asylum seekers gives rise to the prevalence of xenophobia in government circles.

More misleading and wrong information regarding refugees registered with UNHCR: “However, the solution for refugees is tough as they hold passports,” noted Adnan Abu Bakar, the Welfare Department director. The truth is, refugees and asylum seekers do not hold passports.  

Registered refugees hold UHCR documentation which categorises them as persons under the protection of the United Nations i.e. internationally protected persons or are “Persons of Concern” to UNHCR. This status is internationally recognised except in Malaysia. Our immigration legislation, although amended, has not been brought up-to-date to recognise asylum seekers and refugees.

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What this supposedly investigative article neglected to highlight is, why refugees flee their homelands, particularly those from Myanmar. Since neither the government nor the mainstream media show a willingness to see the connection between the political upheaval and turmoil in the countries where refugees come from, the general public has again to use its own common sense to understand the situation and plight of these persecuted people.

This issue is not a new one; many Malaysians are aware of the on-going issues of police, immigration, and Rela raids, and the human rights violations taking place almost on a daily basis involving alleged ‘undocumented’ migrants, including refugees, asylum seekers and victims of human trafficking. The public has also become aware of conditions in immigration detention centres/camps (IDCs) where several migrant detainees have died from disease and brutality.

Despite the wide availability of information and training that is accessible by government departments, security enforcers and the public, only a minority of Malaysians (including the mainstream media) care to make use of these facilities. It just takes a call to various NGOs working with migrants and refugees or to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees office in KL to gain access to these facilities.

Therefore, mainstream news providers like The Star have no excuse to disseminate lop-sided half-truths that mislead the public, play up to their political masters and incite xenophobia in the country. Remember, the furore over words like “pendatang” being used by particular ruling party minions to label certain sections of Malaysian society? The Star should “do unto others as they want others to do unto them”. They should also stop victimising the poor and defenceless in this racist manner.

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Angeline Loh is an Aliran exco member

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