The first Malaysian refugee? — Daniel Lo

AUGUST 4 — If your country was at war, attacked by another country. If you faced violence, torture or genocide just because you believed in a different god or because you had a different skin tone or cultural practice how would you feel?

If your country was not safe, where would you go? It’s natural to want the best for yourself and your loved ones. You would run away. This would make you a refugee.

However, being a refugee is too often like jumping out of the frying pan into the fire. Whilst a refugee may have left the troubles of their own country, being an unwelcomed foreigner in another country has its own problems. No work (livelihood), no education for their children, no healthcare and perhaps no future.

The gloomy and trying conditions in the country in which a refugee is seeking refuge is likely to be a long one because the problems in their home country may take time to get fixed. Wars, civil wars, ethnic tensions and violence often take years and even decades to resolve itself.

In Malaysia, based on the 2014 UNHCR Fact Sheet, there are 142,831 refugees and asylum-seekers registered with UNHCR in Malaysia. 132,629 are from Myanmar, comprising some 52,056 Chins, 34,871 Rohingyas, 11,765 Myanmar Muslims, 7,901 Rakhine, 3,630 Burmese & Bamars, 5,397 Mon, 5,323 Kachins, and other ethnicities from Myanmar.

There are some 10,202 refugees and asylum-seekers from other countries, including some 4,115 Sri Lankans, 1,132 Somalis, 902 Syrians, 775 Iraqis, 328 Afghans, and others from other countries. UNHCR believes that there are some 35,000 unregistered asylum-seekers, who UNHCR is progressively working to register.

Whilst the sheer number may be a shock to many Malaysians, we are not a stranger to refugees.

In the 1970s 250,000 Vietnamese refugees arrived by boat and were provided temporary shelter in Pulau Bidong just south of Pulau Redang.

In the 1970s to 1980s around 50,000 Filipino Muslims refugees were supported in Sabah when they fled conflicts in Mindanao.

In the 1980s several thousand Cambodian Muslim refugees were offered permanent residency in Malaysia.

In the 1990s several hundred Bosnians were provided asylum in Malaysia when their country plunged into civil war.

More recently, in Oct 2015, our prime minister announced that Malaysia will receive up to 3,000 Syrian refugees fleeing civil war in Syria.

However, going back even further in Malaysia’s history, it can be argued that the modern Malaysia as you and I know it was founded by a “refugee.” A refugee not in the strict sense of the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, also known as the 1951 Refugee Convention but rather as a refugee fleeing violence and seeking out a safer place for refuge.

If this does not sound anything like the history which you have learnt in primary or secondary school, perhaps a refresher on the history of Parameswara (Iskandar Shah) may help. Parameswara, king of Tamasek (Singapore) fled the island and settled Malacca in 1401. He fled Tamasek because his home was attacked by Majapahit with apparently three hundred warships and around 200,000 men.

It is said that Parameswara whilst sitting under a Malacca tree in Malacca was emboldened when he saw the weaker mouse deer elude his hunting dog. He possibly identified with the mouse deer and seeing this as a good omen established his court at the Malacca River. The rest they say is history.

So from our history until modern times, Malaysia has hosted refugees. Whilst there are many reasons why this is the case (such as the pull factors of our geography, climate and economy) at the heart of it, I believe that Malaysians are firmly grounded in hospitality, compassion and kindness.

We know what it means to be in need or like the mouse deer hunted by a dog and so we are always willing to help others as best as we can.

Whilst governments consider long term solutions to the plight of the hundreds of thousands of refugees in our region, the tens of thousands already here in Malaysia can do with your help. What kind of help?

Not necessarily with financial or material support, access to education (nearly 30,000 of the refugees in Malaysia are children) nor access to health but with understanding and compassion. Understand that they did not leave their country just because they wanted to but because they had to. Having compassion, knowing that, “There but for the grace of God go I.”

Understanding and compassion are built from encounters. If you do not know a refugee working in a restaurant where you eat, or cannot find an education centre teaching refugee children, there are also non-governmental organisations and faith based organisations working side by side these refugees.

I found many touching stories of refugee resilience here. Caring for others never makes us weak. It only makes us stronger.

* Daniel Lo is special officer (human rights) to Senator Datuk Paul Low, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department.

** This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online.

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