Rohingya refugee rights

First published in theSun on 13 December 2016 here.

AT A “Solidarity March” two weekends ago, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak protested the atrocities taking place in Myanmar, condemning Myanmar for what he considered as the “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing” of the Rohingya community.

What is happening in Myanmar is without a doubt disturbing, and requires international attention. But Najib needs to turn his eye to the refugee conditions on home ground in Malaysia.

First, Malaysia sits on the United Nations Security Council and could have used this position to act on its concerns, but through the appropriate channels.

If it wants to elevate the seriousness of the developments at an international level, the government could table an emergency motion on what it considers to be the genocide of the Rohingyas in Myanmar at the UN Security Council.

Second, Malaysia has not yet signed or ratified the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention, which means the government does not formally or legally recognise refugees in the country.

This includes Rohingyas, who are therefore not recognised as refugees. The implications of this are, namely, that the government can act according to its whims and fancies whenever it is convenient for it to appear humanitarian.

Second, it does not have to comply with any sort of rules in its treatment of refugees. The convention would require member states to provide certain protections, such as the right to work, the right not to be expelled, and the right to freedom of religion,
among others.

The only document refugees in Malaysia have is a UNHCR card (UN High Commissioner for Refugees), issued upon interviews and certification by the UNHCR itself. Even so, the Malaysian authorities have reportedly thrown these cards away.

An expose took place in March 2015 of syndicates selling fake UNHCR cards for as cheap as RM50 a card. A documentary by Al-Jazeera in late 2014 also exposed allegations of abuse of refugees – refugees were seen chained and handcuffed, and said they had been beaten and exploited and left little food and water – as well as claims of corruption within the UNHCR.

The UNHCR has responded by issuing new cards with increased security features to combat identity fraud and counterfeiting.

All of these incidents underscore more importantly that there is a need for the government to work closely with the UNHCR and other agencies offering refugee care and services to come out with clear policies and regulations on managing the refugee issue in a more systematic way.

Since Najib has taken a keen interest in human rights – in his rally speech he stated that one of the articles in the Asean charter was for Asean to uphold human rights – he should also consider signing and ratifying a host of other international human rights conventions.

This would include the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, two of which are considered to be the most basic of human rights conventions for any modern democracy.

Third, recall that it was only in May last year that there were an estimated 6,000 Rohingya and Bangladeshi refugees who were stranded at sea because authorities turned them away. (The government did change its position subsequently to allow the boat people to land in Malaysia.)

The then deputy home minister had said: “We have to send the right message that they are not welcome here”, after 1,000 refugees landed on the shores of Langkawi. Recall that after being on the boat for more than three months, their boats’ captains and crew abandoned them, leaving about 10 passengers to die.

Finally, there are already Rohingya refugees in Malaysia, many of whom are being detained under horrible conditions in detention centres, some of which have been mentioned above.

Why has the government not turned a kind eye to treat our existing refugees with the love our leaders now profess? Why the sudden attention now, when they have been languishing for years?

As of the end of October 2016, there are more than 150,000 refugees and asylum-seekers in Malaysia, of which some 54,856 are Rohingyas. Why focus solely on one community’s conditions?

Other refugees in Malaysia include those from Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine.

One should not discriminate based on country of origin, the level of care and attention provided.

All have experienced persecution and suffering and have been forced to leave their countries because of serious discrimination or armed conflict, and are in search of a better future.

The prime minister should sign and ratify the UN Refugee Convention, table an emergency motion at the UN Security Council to debate this crisis, and finally turn his eyes to the horrid conditions the Rohingya and other refugees have to suffer on home soil itself.

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