KUALA LUMPUR, June 16 ― Malaysians’ inability to differentiate between refugees and illegal immigrants was clouding the the recent crisis on human trafficking and boat people, human rights advocates said during a forum last night.
Malaysian Social Research Institute's (MRSI) Yolanda said this is a crucial problem for refugees as local do not understand why these people were attempting to seek asylum here.
“Generally, Malaysians do not know what is a refugee. They just put them in the same room as illegal immigrants… a lot of them think there are no refugees here,” said the MRSI programme officer who has been dealing with refugees from Syria and Pakistan, among others.
According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees website, a refugee is defined as someone who fled their country due to “well-founded fear” of being persecuted for their race, religion and political opinion among others.
An illegal immigrant are those who stay in a country without a valid working permit or visa.
Voice for Refugees committee member Jessica Wee said that the general public misconception of refugees also made Malaysia reluctant to offer aid.
“I have a friend, when I told him I am raising money for refugees' education, he told me that they are all Bangladeshi, not Rohingya… nobody believe them, they are all liars,” she said.
Wee, who also founded the “Let's Tutor a Refugee Child” programme, acknowledged there will always be sceptics until they personally see the problems refugees face.
“I tell them to come and and see what I am working with...some would and find out more, those were the people we want them to realise how deep the problem is.
“For the rest is really just about awareness,” she said, adding that it could be done through participating in discussions or forums.
Malaysia is home to a reported 40,000 Rohingyas, many of whom are barred from seeking employment due to their status as asylum seekers and refugees.
This, in turn, makes them vulnerable to exploitation both by the authorities and those willing to employ them illegally.
Wee suggested that it was better to offer basic education for the refugees, especially their children, so they could grow up and “contribute to the society” as they would stay in the country for a long time.
She also said Malaysians must be cognisant that refugees will exist regardless of local attitude towards them.
Malaysia is at the centre of a human trafficking crisis after a crackdown in Thailand flushed out thousands of people smuggling victims who had been kept in the jungles along the Thai-Malaysian borders.
The country also has a long-standing problem with illegal immigrants from neighbouring Asean and Asian countries.