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Rohingya crisis and refugees in Malaysia — Shaun Kang

DECEMBER 2 — The global community has once again transcended into shock by the atrocities currently happening to the Rohingya in the Rakhine State of Myanmar. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Bangladesh had termed the conduct of the Myanmar government against the Rohingya as an act of “ethnic cleansing,” a crime against humanity under the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) Rome Statute.

Sharing similar concerns, albeit with a more subtle tone, the UN Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) had warned that this may amount to crimes against humanity.

Putting aside the fact whether the act and situation meet the legal technicalities to be termed as crimes against humanity, what is clear and beyond doubt is that the Rohingya are being persecuted and face violence on an unimaginable scale.

Human Rights Watch found through satellite imagery between November 10 and 18, that there is a “new wave of destruction in Rohingya villages,” with reportedly 1,250 buildings destroyed by arson. This is corroborated by various news reports on the death of hundreds, if not thousands, of men, women, and children who have died directly or indirectly from the ongoing conflict.

Various human rights reports from NGOs and the United Nations had documented systemic human rights violations towards the Rohingya, which had consistently taken place for many years.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Report in June 2016 documented a slew of human rights violations against the Rohingya people including being deprived of nationality, sexual and gender-based violence, threats to life, threats to liberty and security, denial of the right to education and health, forced labour, and other forms of abuses.

It is clear that Myanmar owes a legal obligation to ensure the safety and rights of all persons in its territory regardless of their legal status and origins. Its justification that such acts are done in pursuit of terrorists would not stand in the face of the level of atrocities taking place.

The Rohingya in Malaysia

Malaysia is no stranger to the plight of the Rohingya. In 2015, the Malaysian authorities uncovered numerous camps in the Malaysian-Thai border, unearthing mass graves containing bodies of refugees.

Investigations revealed a trafficking network that had been ongoing for many years, where refugees were trafficked in direst conditions, often subjected to violence. Since then, many of the perpetrators had reportedly been detained and prosecuted.

In the face of the persecutions faced by the Rohingya, it is encouraging to see that the Malaysian government had taken a firm position against these atrocities. The government had summoned Myanmar’s Ambassador to Malaysia, registering Malaysia’s protest on the situation.

The Malaysian cabinet has even made public its concerns on the situation in Myanmar. The foreign minister had also reportedly requested for an appointment with Myanmar’s State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi to discuss the matter.

At the time of writing, it has even been reported that the prime minister of Malaysia will attend a rally in protest against the treatment of the Rohingya by the government of Myanmar. This is certainly an appropriate response, given that it departs from the conventional principle of non-interference among Asean member states.

Given that the persecutions against the Rohingya is not a new affair, many have fled the country to Malaysia. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) reports that as of October 2016, there are 54,856 Rohingya refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia.

In light of the ongoing crisis, it is timely to reflect on our treatment of the Rohingya and more broadly the other 100,000-odd refugees and asylum seekers already in this country.

It is encouraging to see that the government had, in the past week, announced the launch of a pilot project allowing 300 Rohingya to work legally in selected areas. Despite this step forward, the government continues to consider all refugees and asylum seekers including the Rohingya as “illegal immigrants,” an offence punishable under the Immigration Act of Malaysia.

Consequentially, various protection issues exist. Many continue to be arrested even though their refugee claims have been properly assessed and that they have been determined to have met the requirements stipulated under international law to be recognised as refugees.

Many refugees also face both financial and physical barriers in accessing healthcare. Naturally, children of refugees in Malaysia are also often left out of the public education system, leaving them with a bleak future ahead. Certainly, without legal means to work, refugees are forced to work illegally to make a living.

This exposes them to often unsafe working conditions and at times exploitation by some employers. Further, given their illegal status, they do not have access to the justice system and cannot enjoy the protection as accorded by law.

History has shown that Malaysia is capable of responding well towards refugees and asylum seekers, evidenced by our treatment of the Bosnians, Cambodians, Vietnamese, and recently the 3,000 Syrian refugees, where the prime minister had pledged to accept in 2015.

It is timely to reflect on our treatment towards the 150,000 or more refugees including the Rohingya in our country and how we could accord them basic minimum rights allowing them to properly access healthcare, education and protection.

We should not forget to recognise our common humanity as we face our own domestic struggles.

Refugees are human beings who do not flee from their homes to find better livelihood opportunities, but are forced to flee because of the ongoing persecutions faced in their country. It is also an opportune time for us to consider the contributions refugees can bring to our country.

Scholars and researchers have shown through their studies that refugees can and are often grateful and willing to contribute to the economy and well-being of their host’s countries, leading to positive economic outcomes for their host countries.

The clarion call made by the prime minister in his statement before the 70th Session of the UN General Assembly, “People around the world cry out for our help. We cannot, we must not, pass on by,” must now be answered.

* 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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