Fear of xenophobic backlash has refugee artists in Malaysia pulling out of Refugee Fest 2020

Mahi said the attacks against activists and NGOs intensified after the Rohingya boat pushbacks in April and June this year, causing some refugees to pull out from Refugee Fest 2020. — Picture courtesy of Mahi Ramakrishnan
Mahi said the attacks against activists and NGOs intensified after the Rohingya boat pushbacks in April and June this year, causing some refugees to pull out from Refugee Fest 2020. — Picture courtesy of Mahi Ramakrishnan

PETALING JAYA, July 3 — Verbal abuse being hurled at refugees by Malaysians on social media has caused them to pull out of the upcoming Refugee Fest 2020.

Beyond Borders president Mahi Ramakrishnan, who is the founder of the festival, said that an empty chair will be displayed during the panels to mark the absence of refugee speakers whose voices have been silenced due to heightened xenophobia in the country.

“We have very few artists from refugee communities this year and no one will sit at a panel fearing backlash, but Malaysians and foreign artists are stepping in to pledge solidarity with the refugees.

“An empty chair at every panel will mark the absence of refugees and the suppression of their voices,” she told Malay Mail.

Mahi said that the online attacks reached fever pitch after the Malaysian government turned away boats carrying Rohingya people in June and April while citing fears of Covid-19.

Some refugees have chosen not to appear at this year’s festival due to the hostile climate towards migrants in Malaysia. — Picture courtesy of Mahi Ramakrishnan
Some refugees have chosen not to appear at this year’s festival due to the hostile climate towards migrants in Malaysia. — Picture courtesy of Mahi Ramakrishnan

The authorities had also detained 202 Rohingya individuals in April and 269 more in June when they were found adrift in Langkawi waters.

Activists and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) were not spared from the hate as locals directed threats and insults at refugees online.

“We have seen, now and again, rights activists being targeted for the work they do in supporting marginalised groups. 

“But the attacks against refugees and migrants over the last few weeks are unprecedented, in that they were very well-coordinated and planned. 

“It started right after the Rohingya boat pushback, which is a violation under international maritime law that clearly states that governments have a responsibility to rescue people in distress at sea.”

Mahi said she understands that such attacks from Malaysians may be rooted in them facing systemic discrimination themselves and the fear of losing what little they already have.

However, she emphasised that this cannot be an excuse for racism and xenophobia to fester in the country.

“There are Malaysians who feel they have lost out on opportunities because of their race and religion. Others feel they are treated as third-class citizens because of their skin colour. 

“I believe these heightened attacks against refugees come from ignorance and fear of losing even that little which many Malaysians feel they are receiving now. 

“But, I would also note that we have increasingly become a racist and xenophobic society because of the play of religion in politics.”

Malaysia detained 269 Rohingya refugees aboard a damaged boat in June, where they found the body of a woman who had perished during the journey. — Reuters pic
Malaysia detained 269 Rohingya refugees aboard a damaged boat in June, where they found the body of a woman who had perished during the journey. — Reuters pic

Mahi said that several of her peers working to provide support for migrants have been victims of online abuse and that there was palpable fear amongst the refugee community as a result.

Earlier in June, Refuge for the Refugees founder Heidy Quah posted a screenshot on Facebook from a user who told her to “go hang yourself” after she wrote about a woman who suffered traumatic flashbacks after being locked up in an immigration detention centre shortly after giving birth in 2018.

Similarly, the European Rohingya Council’s Malaysian ambassador Tengku Emma Zuriana Tengku Azmi lodged a report to the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission after she received a rape threat online in April.

The threat came after she called on the government to reverse its pushback policies towards Rohingya refugees who tried to seek safety in Malaysia.

Despite the online vitriol, Mahi said that NGOs will continue to soldier on in their fight to protect marginalised communities.

Performances by artists at last year’s Refugee Fest which took place in George Town, Penang. — Picture courtesy of Mahi Ramakrishnan
Performances by artists at last year’s Refugee Fest which took place in George Town, Penang. — Picture courtesy of Mahi Ramakrishnan

This year’s Refugee Fest will take place online and the line-up includes poetry readings, theatre, music and dance performances, photography sessions, film screenings, and panel discussions about issues facing refugee communities.

It will be held from July 4 until July 10 and some of the confirmed speakers include Klang MP and Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights chairperson Charles Santiago, Alternative Asean Network on Burma founder Debbie Stothard, and Hafsar Tamesuddin, a Rohingya refugee living in New Zealand.

Humanitarian and former beauty queen Deborah Priya Henry also expressed her support for Refugee Fest 2020 on Facebook and talked about the power of art in moving people to accept and learn about each other’s differences.

“Art has an amazing power. It makes you feel, think, explore, and discover not only yourself but the people around you and the environment that you live in, especially what’s foreign and different and what sometimes can seem really scary.

“I think to be an artist and to express your art, you need to be very courageous. 

“I really respect all the artists (at Refugee Fest) who come from such diverse backgrounds and are sharing their very personal stories with us,” said Henry.

For more information on the festival, check out the official Facebook page for Refugee Fest 2020.

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