The Rohingya are victims, we need to do more


The steps taken by our government to lessen the burden of the rakyat who are suffering a loss of income as a result of the Movement Control Order – the credit transfers of RM 1600 to 4 million family and the moratorium on personal and small business loans till the end of the year – made me proud to be a Malaysian. This is what a civilized society will do – extend help to those in need.

However that positive feeling was deflated a few days later by the news that a boatload of 200 desperate Rohingya had been turned away from our territorial waters off Langkawi island on 19/4/2020. On that same day, the Bangladesh Coast Guard rescued another refugee boat that had left Bangladesh 2 months ago, but was not able to make it to Malaysia. When the 396 famished and emaciated refugees were brought ashore in Bangladesh they recounted their 2 month ordeal, where 60 among them had died at sea.

Further more, PSM is disgusted that some netizens have taken onto social media to launch a series of xenophobic racist attacks on the Rohinya Refugee community. In times of desperation during the pandemic, some short sighted Malaysians are turning their guns towards Rohingya’s and foreigners accusing them of spreading the virus through their unhygienic lifestyles. The deplorable living conditions are caused by the government’s refusal to recognize refugees and grant them legal working status. If they were accepted and allowed to work legally, they too could find proper accommodation and provide for themselves with dignity. Unfortunately they have to live in cramped conditions, hiding in fear of arrest.

We condemn such attacks as the pandemic infects all beyond race, religion and nationality. But it was also heartwarming to see many Malaysians coming out in full force to fund raise and distribute food and groceries packs to Rohingya’ and other refugee communities whom are affected by the lockdown.

The 2.5 million Rohingya population are the most marginalized and impoverished group of people in our part of the world. While several other ethnic minorities in Myanmar also have serious problems with the Myanmar State, the Rohingya are in worst possible situation as Myanmar does not consider them citizens but claims that they are immigrants from Bangladesh. Bangladesh meanwhile denies that they are/were Bangladeshi citizens.

There are now almost a million Rohingya refugees cramped in the refugees camps of Cox Bazaar in South East Bangladesh. The conditions in these camps are quite severe and the majority of the refugees are unable to find work. They rely almost entirely on aid from international agencies. Because of this, some of them are prepared to risk their lives in the perilous sea voyage to Thailand and Malaysia where they think conditions will be better.

The Covid Pandemic poses an immense threat to all the countries in the world. But that is no excuse for turning a blind eye to the predicament that the Rohingya are in. The Malaysian Government should do the following –

  1. Stop pushing refugee boats back to sea. That is inhumane and leads to loss of lives! The Covid Pandemic should not be used as the excuse for this callous policy.
  2. Speed up the registration of Rohingya refugees in Malaysia. At present the UNHCR is processing their applications but as the process takes so long, many of the Rohingya in Malaysia do not yet have UNHCR refugee certification. The government should work with the UNHCR to complete the process so that the Rohingya in Malaysia have the documents that they need to normalize their stay in Malaysia.
  3. Provide the Rohingya in Malaysia work permits so that they can work. At present they are not supposed to work but as no one – the UNHCR or our government – is giving them money to buy food or procure shelter, they are forced to work “illegally”. This leads to instances where they are cheated of their wages or are abused in other ways. We need not worry about them robbing Malaysians of jobs. We have 5.5 million migrant workers in Malaysia. The Rohingya in Malaysia only number about 200,000, and only about 60% of them are of working age. 120,000 Rohingya make up less than 2% of the migrant worker population in Malaysia. Giving them the right to work and avail protection from our labour laws will do a great deal for their welfare and will not disadvantage Malaysians in any way.
  4. At this juncture, it is crucial that Malaysia works together with other ASEAN countries to provide funds to the authorities in Cox Bazaar so that they can screen for and isolate Covid 19 cases and contacts. That should be done now, urgently, to prevent the pandemic from reaching the crowded refugee camps. There are already reports of sporadic Covid 19 cases in the Bangladeshi population of Cox Bazaar. ASEAN needs to act quickly on this to forestall a carnage.
  5. The United Nations has been trying to persuade Myanmar to accept the Rohingya refugees back into Myanmar. But the refugees are apprehensive to return unless their citizenship status is resolved and their safety assured. At present many of the 600,000 Rohingya still in Myanmar have been driven from their villages and are interned in camps. ASEAN member states may be able to help improve the situation by participating in the economic development of the Rakhine province paired with diplomacy that draws in China as well. Resolving the problem in the Rakhine province is the key to the long term resolution of the Rohingya issue.

It is said that the moral fibre of a society is revealed in the way it treats the weakest and most marginalized groups within it. The Rohingya represent such a group. We need to urge our government to do more to alleviate their suffering and work for a resolution of their predicament.

Dr.Jeyakumar Devaraj
Chairperson Parti Sosialis Malaysia
25th April, 2020.

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