JUNE 13 — “Britain mengamalkan konsep ini iaitu jika ada pihak mengadu kepada kerajaannya bahawa jika dia tersekat atau diapa-apakan di luar undang-undang biasa, maka individu terbabit akan diberi kemudahan tempat tinggal atau lokasi yang selamat.”
This was a statement made by our Information Minister Datuk Rais Yatim, who was speaking to Utusan Malaysia in relation to Raja Petra Kamaruddin, who is now living in the UK.
Funny, but Rais made it sound like this was a bad thing, as it meant that the likes of Raja Petra and Hindraf leader P. Wayathamoorthy are free to make derogatory remarks about the Malaysian government from afar.
He further explained that because Malaysia does not have an extradition agreement with the UK, we can’t ask the UK to send these people back.
This led me to think about how people who claim asylum are treated, both here in the UK and back home in Malaysia.
As it happens, Britain has rather a better record in dealing with people who have been persecuted than us. The system is by no means perfect. There have been cases where people who were about to be deported back to their home countries committed suicide to avoid being sent back. There have also been cases where children who arrived as asylum seekers and had settled and adjusted to the country were then sent back on legally becoming adults at the age of 18. Still, asylum seekers are housed and fed by the government once a claim has been made, and those whose cases have not been decided after six months can apply for the right to work.
That contrasts sharply with the way we view refugees. We don’t recognise accreditation from the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), and tend to house large numbers of people in small flats (UNHCR states that it is normal for refugees to live in groups of up to 20 or 30 in a small room). In fact, our Immigration Act doesn’t even recognise refugees.
Of course, you might say that there are plenty of Malaysians who don’t have adequate shelter and that they should be the government’s first priority — and that would be right; however at the same time don’t we also have the obligation to help those who need it? Aren’t we supposed to be masyarakat penyayang, or is that only extended to people who are like us?
I’m not saying we should find jobs for all refugees, simply that we should treat people who seek safety in our country better. We all know how important legal status is in our country; after all, we’re required to carry our MyKads everywhere.
Therefore, surely it can’t be difficult for the authorities to issue some form of ID for refugees that is legally recognised by all (especially the police)? And to put a system in place where refugees get the right support, especially where children are involved?
Most refugee children don’t even get any form of education. Even if we are so callous as to not care about the adults, don’t we have a duty of care towards refugee children? What kind of life are we condemning these children to, if we’re not even prepared to give them some basic schooling?
Think about how difficult it must be for a refugee whose papers aren’t recognised; you don’t exist, therefore the system can abuse you and no one would know any better. Imagine being persecuted in your own country — as many Burmese refugees had been — and then finding what you think is a safe haven, only to be arrested by the local police and then deported, because the country that you think is a safe haven classes you as an illegal immigrant as it doesn’t recognise your papers.
Then there is the double standard in the way we view the persecuted. Half a world away, the plight of the Gazans and the way the Israelis have been treating aid ships have received huge coverage in Malaysia. Why, we’ve even organised nation-wide demonstrations against Israel. That is, I’m sure, another manifestation of our masyrakat penyayang nature.
Yet what do we do about the plight of those nearer to home?
Take Myanmar, for instance. The military junta there has been oppressing its people for decades, yet we hardly stir ourselves. In fact, some of the persecuted are Muslims too — the Rohingyas — but perhaps we only care for some Muslims and not others. Instead, once they’ve made it out of Myanmar and into our country, the Rohingyas face more difficulties.
I know many people think refugees are synonymous with illegal immigrants and migrants. Many people also think that these migrants commit most of the crime in our country (in fact, most crime in Malaysia is committed by Malaysians; in 2009, according to police stats the figure was 97 per cent). Some people even think that we should deport all these people and not let them in.
The thing is, sitting in our comfortable, safe homes, it’s easy to turn a blind eye to the plight of the refugees. It’s easy to hear stories of people living 20 to a room, shrug our shoulders and just think, “well, it’s better than what they had back in Myanmar or wherever, so why should they complain”. And it is certainly easy to go to that mamak stall and order your teh tarik from the waiter who is probably from Bangladesh, and then continue talking to your friends about just how these bloody migrants are committing all the crimes in Malaysia and they should jolly well be turfed back home.
And whilst you’re having that teh tarik, just be thankful that there are countries like the UK which will take you in should you ever feel threatened by your own government.
* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.