More than one million refugees crossed into Europe last year alone. The disastrous civil war in Syria,as well as ongoing military conflict and sectarian violence in Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia, among others, have resulted in a massive flow of movement of refugees. A UNHCR report in 2015 stated that there were 21.3 million refugees around the world. To give you a clearer picture of its scale, the entire population of peninsular Malaysia is estimated to be 22.5 million.
Against this backdrop, I recently had the privilege to attend a 10-day seminar in Germany, which examined the topic of freedom of movement for refugees. It was organised by the Friedrich Neumann Foundation, a not-for-profit body that promotes individual liberty. Alongside myself were 24 other participants, mostly lawyers and human rights activists, from all corners of the world.
Refugees are people fleeing conflict or persecution and their rights are protected under international law. They are distinct from economic migrants, insofar as refugees cannot return to their country of origin, because they might face serious threats to their life or freedom. The most memorable experience of the entire trip was a site visit to a refugee camp in Hamburg. It was a surreal experience and I got to interact with actual refugees, who had left their homes in the Middle East, thousands of kilometres away, to seek safety in Germany.
I was almost moved to tears when I heard the heart wrenching personal stories of the people I met. One Syrian refugee whom I spoke with told me of his previous job as a mechanic in Aleppo. He had lived a comfortable, middle class life with his wife and children, but lost everything when the civil war broke out in 2012. He was forced to flee his home and family and start afresh, alone in a country he knew nothing about, and where people conversed in a strange language that he did not understand.
His story made me realise that refugees are regular human beings, just like you and I. They too have hopes, dreams, and fears and are willing to work hard and make sacrifices to afford a better life for themselves and their loved ones.
Closer to home, Malaysia is seen by many as a safe haven for refugees to relocate to. In fact, there are currently 151,560 refugees and asylum-seekers registered with UNHCR Malaysia. Refugees from Myanmar account for approximately 90% of the overall figure, which also includes the ethnic Rohingya, who face brutal oppression due to their Muslim heritage. Refugees see Malaysia as a transit point, while they wait to be resettled in third countries like Australia and America.
It is very unfortunate that Malaysia has refused to sign the 1951 UN Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol to recognise the status of refugees. Due to this, the government views refugees as illegal immigrants. Refugees are thus treated as people who have committed a crime, and are thus liable to harsh punishment such as being fined, detained or arrested by the police and immigration officers at any time. As a result, refugees in Malaysia are forced to live in the legal grey area of society where they are subject to all kinds of inhumane exploitation or abuse.
The reluctance of the Malaysian government to recognise refugees also makes it difficult for these men and women to find legitimate jobs within the formal economy. Even if both parties find it mutually advantageous, businesses dare not hire refugees over fear that the police might barge in with arrest warrants and fines. In addition, the failure to accept and recognise refugees prevents this vulnerable group from having to access basic human rights like education and healthcare. This situation is especially critical for the 34,000 refugee children in Malaysia, who are below the age of 18.
Signing the UNCHR Refugee Convention would be the most humane solution to Malaysia’s refugee situation. Unfortunately, this is improbable for now, because it requires political will, which the present leadership lacks.
In the short run however, the Malaysian government can ease the plight of refugees by doing 2 things. First, and most important, is to stop perceiving refugees as illegal immigrants and granting them the right to work legally. This is in our economy’s interest. Refugees can provide useful services, especially in the service and manufacturing sectors. Many empirical studies have shown that an inflow of people into a country boosts economic growth and GDP levels in the long run. Furthermore, refugees are often more industrious, hard-working and don’t complain as much as locals when given tasks to complete. This would be good news for local business owners, especially in our present economic situation.
Second, the government should work closer with the UNHCR, to get a better understanding of the refugees who are in Malaysia. There is often a negative perception among locals and government officials that refugees account for much crime and anti-social activities. If the government recognises these refugees and allows them to function like regular citizens during their stay Malaysia, it would be able to track and monitor their activities more effectively. It would also distinguish refugees from illegal immigrants, who come from safe countries but choose to stay in Malaysia without a valid visa. Because the government doesn’t want to recognise refugees, they remain as a faceless, scary group which is always marginalised and discriminated against.
This shouldn’t be the case. When it’s all said and done, refugees are merely innocent victims, who have had the terrible misfortune of being born in the wrong country, at the wrong time, and are trying to do something to improve their odds.
As a proud Malaysian, I would like to urge the government, and my fellow countrymen to be more compassionate to our fellow human beings; to emphasise with their struggle and to help refugees in any way we can. Compared with those who are forced to leave their homes due to unfortunate circumstances, we Malaysians are blessed. Indeed, life has given us distinctly different fates.
However, we must not forget that when we ask for God’s blessings, that He created us equal.
Yohannan Nair is a researcher at The Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS).