June 22, 2020

Dr Rozhan Othman

Senior Fellow

World Refugees Day on June 20 was for all practical purposes a non-event in Malaysia. There were no events to mark it, no speech from national leaders, and the local media seems to have missed it or ignored it. Malaysia’s stance towards refugees is difficult to understand. It seems to be swinging like a pendulum.

World Refugees Day on June 20 was for all practical purposes a non-event in Malaysia. There were not events to mark it, no speech from national leaders and the local media seems to have missed it or ignored it. Malaysia’ stance towards refugees is difficult to understand. It seems to be swinging like a pendulum.

Picture courtesy of Washing Post

During the Bosnian War in the early 1990s, Malaysia took the trouble to fly in refugees from Bosnia. They were given accommodation and jobs and stayed here until the war was over. Bosnian students were also offered places to study at IIUM. One cant be blamed for thinking that Malaysia’s benevolence is a product of its righteous attitude towards the plight of Bosnian refugees. How else can one explain the extraordinary effort Malaysia took in flying in refugees who were not even at its borders to be resettled here?

In 2015, Malaysia had a similar program for Syrian refugees. The government flew in 3,000 Syrian refugees to Malaysian. Such kindness should be complimented. The number of Syrian refugees Malaysia took in is small compared to the number refugees taken in by Germany and Canada. But the Malaysian government deserves credit for the program.

We also see another refugee crisis that was triggered by ethnic cleansing in Rakhine state in Burma. The victims are Rohingyan Muslims who fled the atrocities. More than 100,000 arrived in Malaysia and more are trying to come in by boats.  That the Rohingyans face mortal threats to themselves is not disputed. That they are forcibly evicted from their home is not in doubt.

Compared to the Bosnian and Syrian refugees, the Rohingyan refugees had received cold treatment from some Malaysians. The argument often presented against them is that they are problematic, they take away jobs, we should help other Malaysians first etc. But then all refugees are problematic. They have no homes, many are traumatized by their experience, many have difficulties adapting to a new country and they are of course poor. How can these not be problematic? Malaysians may not realize that these arguments against helping Rohingyan refugees are not too different from the arguments presented by the extreme right in Europe against helping Syrian refugees.

The premise behind the argument against the Rohingyan refugees is that they are a drain on the country’s resources. We should help our own people before helping others. The underlying assumption is that refugees do not make any economic contribution to the country. But then the argument that they take away jobs contradicts this. If they are holding jobs, then they are making contributions to the economy. In many cases, they are doing jobs that locals are not willing to do. How do we reconcile this contradiction?

Above all, we place restrictions on refugees that limits their ability to get good education, health care and employment. All these are needed to make a contribution to our economy. As a result, these deprivations lead to many other social problems. We complain that some of these Rohingyans become beggars. What choices do they have if they are not allowed to work and their children cannot go to schools? But at the same time some industries in Malaysia rely on foreign labourers, legal and illegal, from many different countries. One estimate puts the number of legal and illegal foreign labourers in Malaysia at more than 4 million.

One has to wonder why the different treatment given to refugees. Some did not even arrive at our borders but were flown in from long distance to resettle here. Why is this righteous benevolence missing when it comes to the Rohingyan refugees?

The global community was outraged when the picture of a dead Syrian toddler on a beach in Greece was shown by the media.  There are probably similar deaths of Rohingyan children who drowned at sea. It just that they were not reported by the international media.

Picture courtesy of UNHCR

At a time when the Black Lives Matter movement has gained momentum in many capital cities all over the world, we see ambivalence in Malaysia. White lives, ie. white refugees’ lives seem to matter. But black lives, black Rohingyan lives, seems to not matter as much. Is this racism and implicit bias that is shaping our attitude and stance towards Rohingyan refugees? And where has the righteousness that we showed in helping Bosnian and Syrian refugees gone? Its time we reflect what would be the righteous response to the refugee crisis the world is facing.



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