By Tricia Yeoh. First published in The Sun on 27 May 2015

Malaysians have finally woken up to the cruel plight faced by refugees and migrant workers following the consecutive events of the last few weeks. The most disconcerting has been the discovery of 139 grave sites earlier this week in Padang Besar, Perlis, where not only were detention camps found, there was also evidence of torture – bullets and metal chains near the grave sites.

Although this has set off international alarm bells of a humanitarian crisis unfolding in our own backyard, Malaysians should also realise that such events are nothing new. Refugees and migrant workers have arrived by the thousands over the last decade, most of them under similarly arduous conditions. Tenaganita, an NGO that deals with migrant workers’ rights, claims that the Malaysian authorities knew of the mass graves for years, but little had been done. The bulk of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) caseload is made up of refugees from Myanmar, a large percentage of which are Rohingyas, most of whom have arrived by boat, and they have been processing these cases for years.

What then, accounts for the limelight that is being cast on them this time? Why is there such intense scrutiny only now, and never before? One possible reason is that for the first time, hard evidence has been found in the form of actual corpses buried in the ground, numbering in the hundreds (starting out with the mass graves found in southern Thailand in early May). Prior to this, humanitarian aid workers and NGOs have known of the complex network between traffickers, local villagers and even officials, but no proof was available.

And it is possibly also because the Thai authorities started cracking down on this web that traffickers are said to have abandoned their boat-loads of people coming from Myanmar and Bangladesh, leaving them stranded at sea with no food or water. The silver lining in this dark, dark cloud is perhaps only that with public pressure and attention, the governments involved have no choice but to finally get their act together.

Some of them have come together to work out a temporary solution, where Indonesia and Malaysia are to offer shelter for up to 7,000 refugees (those coming from sea) for a one-year period, while Thailand will provide humanitarian aid to those on the boats. This is good, but not nearly good enough. In dealing with asylum seekers, there are only three possible solutions: first, voluntary repatriation; second, national integration; and third, relocation to other countries.

Given the positions of both the Malaysian and Myanmar governments, the first two have not been workable, although they are preferred options that will only be feasible with political will. Myanmar is hardly going to accept the Rohingyas since their citizenship is not recognised in their constitution, and Malaysia, not being signatory to the 1951 United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, is not willing to cover the costs needed for the refugees’ basic health and educational needs, much less integrate them into Malaysian society. As at the end of April 2015, there are more than 150,000 refugees registered with the UNHCR and there are still others who are undocumented.

Europe is dealing with a similar crisis, where boatloads of West Africans take dangerous journeys to reach the shores of Greece, Italy and Spain. This year alone, 954 lives of migrants have been lost as a result of boats that have sunk. The difference between Europe and Asean is that they have funds to finance whole operations and have a European Asylum Support Office, which deploys teams to process asylum applications. Second, they have laws that recognise refugee protection; the European Court of Human Rights ruled in 2012 that “boat people must be given a fair chance to apply for asylum and may not automatically be sent back even if rescued in international waters” (The Economist, April 2015).

Working out a longer-term solution will be the challenge. Countries in Asean have only ever practised the principle of non-interference, preferring instead to focus on economic integration. But brushing under the carpet what can only grow as a deepening crisis will not work any longer. Malaysia, as Chair of Asean this year, has the moral obligation to take leadership and challenge other member countries to share in this responsibility.

In fact, the primary challenge will lie in convincing governments (ours included) that there are in fact socioeconomic benefits to the freer movement of people across the region, both for source and destination countries. Annual remittances make up three times the amount of foreign aid, and movement of people help meet the demand for skills and services in destination countries.

A resolution I helped draft, emerging from an Economic Freedom Network conference on migration put it succinctly, stating that “the freedom to move voluntarily needs to be protected and facilitated”, where amongst other recommendations, “rules and regulations should be simplified and made transparent, reduction in transaction costs will switch migration from illegal to legal channels” and “recruitment agencies should operate in a free, competitive and transparent environment, with proper disclosure and accountability.” The Malaysian legal and regulatory framework needs some severe overhauling in this regard, in order to facilitate migration. Not doing so means people go through shadowy illegal channels, resulting in the crisis we have today.

It was heartwarming to know many Malaysians were concerned about the refugees out at sea, where many are contributing funds and clothes to help those already landed in Langkawi. But to see them as humans with dignity also means acknowledging that such asylum seekers and other migrant workers are peaceful and not out to create sociocultural problems here, as many Malaysians tend to believe. They move in search of better lives and prosperity for themselves and their families. Destination countries like ours should accord such basic access to services including civil and legal rights, and they should not be discriminated against.

Our prime minister has called this an international problem, inviting Japan to provide any assistance it can. An international meeting today will also have international presence, including that of the United States. Certainly, more collaborative help is welcome, especially advice from others who may have previously dealt with this problem. But primary responsibility and leadership need to emerge from our own region. Signing the United Nations Convention would be a first step of many bigger steps to take. We owe it to the hundreds and possibly thousands who, silenced in life, are now also silenced in death.


Tricia Yeoh is the Chief Operating Officer of IDEAS

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