Refugees and migrants: Let’s begin to understand their huge, positive contribution to society

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Sometimes 20, Sometimes 30 - It’s normal for refugees to live in small flats with up to 30 people, who may all be replaced the next week. For survival, they live wherever job opportunities take them - Photograph: UNHCR

Let’s also understand their desperate need for welcome and security, and yet the huge challenges and horrors they continue to face here, writes James.

2017 was an awful year for refugees. Awful, the world over; awful in this region; awful in Malaysia; awful in Penang.

Around the world, millions of women, men and children have been forcibly displaced from their homes; atrocity after atrocity has been committed against them; unknown numbers have been brutally killed; millions of lives have been totally devastated and uprooted. But little changes – the world knows all about these atrocities, and yet seems powerless to stop them.

Here in Malaysia, we have shared the news stories throughout 2017. Nearly every day we have been shown the photographs, given the headlines, asked to help circulate the videos, watched the films and documentaries and asked to support relief funds.

Many of these news items concerned the Rohingya in Myanmar, where genocide continues. We are all aware now about the systematic rape and sexual violation of women and children; the torture and killings of thousands of women, children and men; the systematic looting and burnings of homes and whole villages; the deliberate deprivation of food, medicine and other essential supplies; the cold-blooded massacres and murders of hundreds and thousands of villagers, and the forced displacement of over 600,000 people from their homes and land.

We might know that the murderous military regime in Myanmar (backed by the government of Aung Suu Kyi and other supporters) continue to commit similar horrors against other ethnic minorities in Myanmar, including Burmese Muslims, Kachin, Chin, Shan, Karen, and other Arakan, as they have been doing for many decades.

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And yet, what is our response when these women, men and children ask us for help, when they ask for some protection, for some sort of safe, secure environment in which they and their families can try to rebuild their lives, so scarred by the horrors of their past? Do we welcome them here? Or are we suspicious? Unfriendly? Outrightly hostile? Why?

These people, human beings the same as ourselves, are survivors of atrocities we can only dream of, and we are desperately lucky that we and our families and children have avoided such experience. Are we saying that these fellow women, men and children do not deserve comfort, support, reassurance, and the chance of a new life?

Perhaps our antagonism to refugees is because of a lack of understanding of who refugees are. Perhaps many of us think they are the same as migrant workers – and we don’t like migrant workers (that is another story we need to re-assess: watch this space). But refugees are very different.

Refugees by definition cannot go home without fear for their lives. Refugees have fled here out of desperation and necessity, not out of choice. We need to know that all refugees in Malaysia have to go through a rigorous vetting procedure conducted by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees that is designed to ensure only ‘real’ refugees are given a UNHCR Card. And there are not so many of them, about 200,000 in total, of which some 37,000 are children.

Despite all the publicity, 2017 brought no change to refugees’ experience here in Malaysia. They continue not to be recognised by our government. They have no rights. They are like ‘non’ people. Yes, refugees register with the UNHCR. But this brings refugees no protection, no legal status, no future here.

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They stay here, but cannot work (to the delight of human traffickers, modern day slavers and other exploiters, who thrive on the vulnerability such denial of rights creates for refugees).

They stay here, but their children have no status and are denied access to education (what sort of future do we then think they will have?).

They stay here, but because they have no legal status, they are in constant fear of being harassed and extorted by persons in authority, and thousands of them are to be found in Malaysian detention camps, desperate places which should not be home to refugees who have survived such awful things in their homeland only to face further awfulness in a country like Malaysia.

I am sure we can do better. So let’s make 2018 different. Let’s help bring better understanding to each and all of us about the history of refugees here, their desperate need for welcome and security, and yet the huge challenges and horrors they continue to face here.

Let’s begin to understand the huge and positive contribution refugees and migrants already are making to our society but which so many of us want to deny.

And let us affirm our commitment to a common humanity and a world where each and everyone can work and live together in peace and harmony, where everyone’s basic rights are respected and protected, and where those fleeing from atrocities we cannot imagine are given an emphatic welcome.

Roll on, 2018, and Happy New Year to you all.

James wrote this article on behalf of all at the Penang Stop Human Trafficking Campaign.

This is the first of what will be a series of articles that Aliran is publishing in partnership with Penang Stop Human Trafficking Campaign. Watch this space.

Penang Stop Human Trafficking Campaign links the issues of human trafficking and modern day slavery, and works in partnership with vulnerable communities, especially at the moment the refugee community in Penang.
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Tony Chan
Tony Chan

There are 54 Muslim countries in the world. What have they done, besides Malaysia and Bangladesh( no choice), to pool their resources to help their fellow Muslim Rohinyas ?