Belantik Immigration Detention Centre, 16 May 2015
A recent government crackdown on traffickers in Thailand has caused thousands of Bangladesh and Myanmar migrants to be abandoned by smugglers and left stranded on boats off the coast of Thailand and Malaysia. Last Sunday, 1,158 of them landed on Langkawi, and they have since been moved to the Belantik Immigration Detention Centre in Sik, Kedah.
According to UNHCR, there are 152,570 refugees and asylum-seekers in Malaysia as of end February 2015. One third of this number is comprised of the Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority in Myanmar that faces systematic persecution by the state. As a result, many of them have fled their country in search of better lives. Being a majority Muslim country, Malaysia is an obvious choice destination.
However, the treatment of refugees in Malaysia has been historically arbitrary. In the 1990s, 350 Muslim Bosnians fleeing ethnic cleansing found Malaysia to be a hospitable host. Asylum and government assistance was granted. Previously, 10,000 Cambodian Muslims had been resettled in Malaysia, while an estimated 120,000 Muslim refugees from the southern Philippines have been given refuge over the last few decades. Unfortunately, due to the lack of laws and procedures governing refugees and asylum-seekers, there is no consistency in the Government’s approach. Certainly, the Rohingya have not been welcomed the same way the Bosnians were.
The Malaysian Government needs to act
With thousands still stranded off our shores at sea, turning them away should not be an option, as that would be akin to sending them to certain doom. Hence, in order to avert a potential humanitarian disaster, the Government must take both short- and long-term measures to address the situation, as stated below:
1. Exert ownership over the current situation.
Our enforcement agencies such as the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency and the Royal Malaysian Navy should be immediately despatched to locate and communicate with the refugee boats out at sea. A crisis centre should also be set up with a clear person-in-charge to both coordinate the different agencies and to act as spokesperson on the issue. Currently, information is sparse and difficult to obtain.
2. Adopt stronger legislation.
For a start, Malaysia should sign and ratify the UN Convention on Refugees, an act that would impose legal obligations that could help govern our treatment of such persons. At the same time, domestic legislation needs to be updated as well, as current immigration laws make no distinction between undocumented migrants, asylum seekers or refugees. As far as the Government is concerned, they are all illegal and thus liable for detention and deportation.
3. Set up a Parliamentary Select Committee on Human Rights.
A bipartisan committee should be set up in Parliament in order to study and explore temporary institutional arrangements to facilitate and provide immediate relief for the refugees. Although there are many long-term questions to consider, such as integration, the current humanitarian crisis necessitates short-term responses in order to save lives.
4. Engage Myanmar to resolve the crisis.
As much as Malaysia and the international community should extend a helping hand to the displaced Rohingya, we cannot ignore the root of the problem, which is the cruel and systematic violation of human rights by the Myanmar government. As the current chair of Asean, it is an opportunity for Malaysia to lead the way in engaging Myanmar through a multilateral process. Asean must realise that unless the victimisation of the Rohingya stops, we will not see the end to this problem. Thus far, the Government has shown no leadership on this matter.
A humanitarian crisis
While it is clear that a humanitarian crisis is unfolding at our doorsteps, we must also not forget that the 150,000-odd refugees and asylum seekers already in our country are also facing great hardship. Due to their uncertain legal status, refugees have no access to basic education, healthcare and jobs. They are also extremely vulnerable to human trafficking and exploitation.
Children cannot go to school while adults cannot seek legal employment. At the same time, they have to pay full price for healthcare at our government hospitals. While those fortunate enough to be registered with the UNHCR are eligible for a 50 per cent discount at government hospitals, how would they get any money to pay half the cost in the first place?
As a result of their predicament, many of them are forced to work illegally, often in menial labour for 14-16 hours a day and dirt wages. They also live in cramped and unsanitary conditions and many have reportedly fallen victim to police abuse and corruption.
Without proper laws and standard operating procedures, the problem will only worsen. The social and economic costs are high, and sweeping the issue under the carpet will not resolve anything. Therefore, the Government must take immediate proactive measures to avoid a humanitarian disaster both outside and inside our borders.
Zairil Khir Johari
Member of Parliament for Bukit Bendera
Steven Sim Chee Keong
Member of Parliament for Bukit Mertajam
Member of Parliament for Batu Kawan