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Dealing with the Rohingya problem

Rohingya migrants sit on a boat drifting in Thai waters off the island of Koh Lipe in the Andaman sea. 'The Burmese government’s draconian formula for dealing with this problem from history is both ludicrous and vicious. It is a recipe for the kind of tragedy we are just witnessing on the high seas.' Photograph: Christophe Archambault/Getty

By Zairil Khir Johari
The Malaysian Insider
November 29, 2015

As much as we have advanced, the world today continues to be wrought by humanitarian crises of great magnitudes.

In Sudan, Syria and Sri Lanka today, millions of innocent people continue to suffer from cruelty and brutality that they had no part in provoking.

Closer to home, the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar has now spilled over to neighbouring countries as refugees continue to flee from state-sponsored persecution. Various reports have quoted United Nations sources as saying that the Rohingya are one of, if not the “world’s most persecuted minority.”

Said to constitute seven per cent of the total Myanmar population, their exact numbers are unknown because the majority-Buddhist Myanmar government intentionally excludes the Rohingya, a Muslim minority, from the national census.

The parochial nature of their plight is a sad one, especially when one considers that the identity of Southeast Asia as a region is defined very much by the inherent social and cultural diversity of its population, both indigenous and immigrant.

Unfortunately, while hundreds of other ethnic groups are able to call Southeast Asia their home, the Rohingya cannot shake off the label of an unwanted guest.

Rejected by their own country, Myanmar, which refuses to recognise them as citizens, and subjected to victimisation in the form of rape, arson, murder and large-scale land confiscation, their attempts to seek refuge in neighbouring countries have been met by shut doors.

Those who manage to make it into other countries find not solace but are instead treated like illegal aliens, and in some cases even worse than that.

Today, it is estimated that 140,000 Rohingya, slightly more than 10% of their entire estimated population, is internally displaced.

Tens of thousands others have escaped to neighbouring countries while thousands more have taken to the seas in overcrowded boats, a voyage often facilitated by human traffickers intent on profiting from their desperate “cargo”.

Hundreds have been reported to have not survived the seas, and those who have not perished remain trapped at sea with little food and water.

Malaysia, of course, has found itself in the thick of the Rohingya crisis, not only as an unwitting destination for its refugees, but sadly also as a facilitator of human trafficking.

Earlier this year, authorities admitted to the shocking discovery of 139 mass graves in 28 abandoned human trafficking camps in Padang Besar and Wang Kelian, which lie on the Malaysian side of the Thai border.

Most of these camps were used by traffickers to house Rohingya refugees, who would only be released when their relatives paid a ransom.

Unsurprisingly, many died due to starvation and disease, as deduced from the “hundreds of skeletons” found in the mass graves.

The discovery of these deplorable camps immediately highlighted the fact that Malaysia was no passive actor in the crisis, especially when it was reported that most of these camps had been operating freely for at least five years.

There is no way that the existence of so many camps could have gone unnoticed by our security forces.

True enough, initial investigations and the subsequent arrest of 12 police officers point to the existence of a nefarious web of human trafficking involving perpetrators on both sides of the border and, disgracefully, complicity on the part of Malaysian enforcement agencies and border security.

Weaknesses in our current approach

Besides the obvious security issues and the repulsive human trafficking problem that has emerged, the Rohingya crisis has also highlighted serious weaknesses in how Malaysia as a state, and indeed Asean as a region, deals with both the gross violation of human rights in a fellow Asean country, as well as the internal management of refugees.

Firstly, the treatment accorded to refugees in this country appears to be completely arbitrary, depending on their country of origin, ethnic background and number.

In the 1990s, hundreds of Bosnian refugees were given asylum and government assistance in Malaysia.

Prior to that, our government also helped to resettle 10,000 Cambodian Muslims and 120,000 Muslim refugees fleeing the southern Philippines. More recently, our government also announced that we would be accepting 3,000 Syrian refugees.

Unfortunately, the Rohingya have not been welcomed in quite the same fashion. In fact, when the Rohingya began to appear in boats outside our shores, there was a great initial reluctance to allow them ashore, even if the alternative meant certain peril.

Numbering an estimated 100,000 in Malaysia, the Rohingya refugees are considered as undocumented migrants, which means that they are not differentiated from other illegal immigrants.

Therefore, these refugees, including children, have no legal access to basic education, healthcare and jobs, thus increasing their risk of exploitation and human trafficking.

These conditions only serve to perpetuate a vicious cycle. Adult refugees are denied legal employment, which means they cannot earn money to pay for many basic necessities, including healthcare that already costs more because subsidised rates do not extend to foreigners, much less illegal ones.

As a result, many of them end up working illegally, often in high-risk and low-paying jobs. Compounding this, their lack of documentation also makes them easy victims of police abuse and corruption.

Without proper laws and standard operating procedures to guide and govern the handling of undocumented migrants and refugees in particular, the problem will no doubt worsen.

With about close to 200,000 refugees and asylum seekers of various nationalities now in Malaysia, living with minimal rights and little access to basic amenities, it is only a matter of time before the situation causes socio-economic problems that will invariably affect Malaysians.

If anything, the string of grisly murders that took place in Penang last year when groups of Myanmar nationals ganged up to kill their fellow citizens is a case in point.

Dealing with the problem

If we wish to address the matter of refugees seriously, then the first step is for the government to adhere to international standards.

For a start, we should sign and ratify the UN Convention on Refugees, a multilateral treaty promulgated 64 years ago in 1951, which defines who a refugee is, spells out their rights, as well as the determines the responsibilities of the asylum-providing countries.

This Convention is based upon the 1949 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which recognises the right of persons to seek asylum from persecution in other countries.

Once signed and ratified, our domestic laws must then be amended to incorporate the provisions of the Convention.

Furthermore, it is critical that our laws make a clear distinction between refugees, asylum seekers and undocumented migrants.

Under our current legal regime, they are all considered illegal and are subject to deportation, detention and abuse by law enforcement agencies.

At the same time, the human trafficking problem demands an immediate and thorough response.

The integrity of our borders must be enhanced, and existing personnel must be revamped in light of the shocking revelations that imply collusion.

Swift action must be taken upon those found guilty, and steps must be taken to improve security protocols and monitoring, including cooperation with affected state governments.

At the same time, international agencies such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees must be roped in to help monitor the situation.

As for the root of the problem itself, it is clear that part of the blame lies on the Asean policy of non-interference.

Simply downplaying the blatant persecution of ethnic or religious minorities as someone else’s internal problem would not only allow the problem to fester, but would, as the case of Myanmar has proven, eventually result in a humanitarian crisis that would spill over into neighbouring countries.

Therefore, treating the Rohingya crisis as if it was an isolated problem will not resolve the situation.

Instead, a multilateral and Asean-centred strategy of engagement with Myanmar is required in order to tackle the problem at the root.

There is a positive precedence for this, as the 2008 Cyclone Nargis incident revealed how Asean’s “constructive engagement” resulted in Myanmar allowing the distribution of aid inside their country after previously rejecting all other international offers of aid.

Firm diplomatic dialogue instead of coercive measures such as economic sanctions or diplomatic isolation will have greater chances of success.

After all, Myanmar’s recent general election marks the culmination of years of continuous effort to prod the process of democratisation along. We need to build upon this progress.

What is clear, however, is the need for Asean to move away from its non-interference policy, especially in the face of clear human rights violations.

On this front, Malaysia needs to exert more pressure and perhaps even take the lead in engaging Myanmar on the persecution of its minorities.

At the same time, coordinated multilateral efforts are also required to address the growing problem of human trafficking in the region.

At the end of the day, there should be no compromise when it comes to defending humanity. After all, as Nelson Mandela once opined: “To deny people their human rights is to challenge their humanity.”

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