A message for 2021 World Refugee Day
Let’s start with a hypothetical situation.
Massive corruption, misuse of power, and a widening wealth gap leads to massive internal conflict over a period of time. Clashes of ideology and political instability leads to resentment among the population. Eventually violence causes dislocation of large groups of people trying to survive.
Let’s say this situation were to happen here in Malaysia, 5-10 years from now. Say for instance that the most affected communities are those living in Northern Peninsula. Where would the people go in order to ensure the well-being of their family, property and themselves? Possibly they will flee to their friends and family members staying in the Southern Malaysia or they will cross the border and flee to Thailand. Meanwhile the richest families might go for holidays overseas until everything settles. If you were living in the affected area, would you:
|Flee for your safety?||No||Yes|
|Cross the border using legal or illegal means for the safety of you and your family?||No||Yes|
|Go to a neighbouring country, seeking some protection from their government?||No||Yes|
|Stay put in the turmoil-affected area until aid reaches you?||No||Yes|
|Join one of the factions and fight for what you believe?||No||Yes|
There are no right or wrong answers because every decision depends on each persons’ emotional state, values, principles, and context. World Refugee Day (WRD) is on 20 June, a reminder that we might become a future statistic of the current 80 million displaced people and 26 million refugees globally if we continue to face political instability. In conjunction with WRD, let us together learn, heal, and shine.
Let’s start with observing some contradictions in Malaysian society:
- Consider the general Malaysian reaction to the long-standing Palestinian issue as a result of 1947 partition voted by United Nations, which led to ongoing clashes between Jews and Arabs in Palestine. Viewed from a religious angle, Muslim unity is much talked about. Well, how about some 6,620 Pakistanis, 3,670 Yemenis, 3,270 Syrians 3,230 Somalis, 2,640 Afghans, 1,210 Iraqis, 750 Palestinians, and some 102,560 Rohingyas – these are all Muslim refugees seeking asylum in Malaysia due to war and persecution in their countries. Does the religion and unity factor have any influence here?
- Malaysians are very kindhearted in supporting the campaign to assist thousands of displaced people in war-ravaged Yemen. More than a million (USD) was raised. Are Malaysians willing to extend the humanitarian assistance to the Yemenis and other refugees who are seeking temporary asylum in Malaysia, especially in giving them right to work and live with dignity in Malaysia?
- It is also quite surprising when Malaysia, which had been sympathetic to the cause of Rohingya at one point on the basis of religion suddenly took a hard stand with hate speech and even ill-treating refugees since the start of Covid pandemic.
Look at the way how the current government is handling the undocumented migrant community. Clueless, whether decision making is for political reasons or scientific reasons. Lectures about physical distancing, wearing masks (not one but two) and sanitation are repeated every minute, yet the government started to arrest and detain these migrants. Locking people in crowded spaces with poor ventilation and hygiene is a violation of SOP and an act of dehumanization. And absurdly, the reason given for the arrests is to enforce vaccination!
“Refugees and migrants live and work in often-harsh conditions with inadequate access to health, housing, water, sanitation, and other basic services,” said WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “It is vital for all countries to reduce barriers that prevent refugees and migrants from obtaining health care, and to include them in national health policies.” It’s unfortunate that those in power in Malaysia are doing exactly the opposite.
Meanwhile the OECD [The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] policy responses to the coronavirus in October 2020, stated that most OECD countries offer access to testing and to emergency health care for migrants, including those in an irregular situation, if they contracted COVID‑19. Free access to necessary treatment related to COVID‑19 irrespective of status is, for example, possible in Belgium, Chile, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Israel, Luxembourg, Mexico, Portugal, Spain and Switzerland. Portugal temporarily regularised migrants in an irregular situation to ensure full access to the healthcare system. Similarly, Spain suspended the obligation to have valid documents in order to continue receiving aid covering basic needs.
In February 2021, Malaysia announced that Covid-19 vaccinations would be offered to foreign residents and undocumented migrants including refugees. In May 2021, the government made a U-Turn.
Is there any hope? Of course, let’s look at all those good-hearted and compassionate people who fight for justice, fairness, and equity. There are many selfless people especially among the vulnerable community that we should cherish and get inspired by.
A campaign was launched on 7 June 2021 by some 20 organizations urging the government to stop operations arresting undocumented foreigners and to focus instead on the goal of controlling the spread of the Covid-19 outbreak. Some organizations such as Beyond Borders Malaysia, Refuge for The Refugees, The Lost Food Project, Project Wawasan Rakyat and many individuals joined hands to provide food supply during the lockdown (MCO) since the beginning of the pandemic. Mental health support and access to health care are also being initiated and provided to the vulnerable community. These are mostly efforts of non-governmental organizations such as Health Equity Initiatives (HEI), Mercy Malaysia, and Buddhist Tzu Chi.
A study carried out by Verghis S, Pereira X, Kumar AG, Koh A, Singh-Lim A titled COVID-19 and Refugees in Malaysia: An NGO Response [Intervention 2021; 19:15-20], has highlighted some of the pertinent issues that the refugee communities are facing currently such as food and housing insecurity as a result of lockdowns, arrest and detention, hate speech and racism and finally access to Covid-19 screening, testing and treatment. Their conclusion is that to fulfill the promise of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, leaving no one behind, requires the inclusion and participation of all people.
Whereas the OECD policy responses to mitigate the employment and other negative impacts on immigrants during coronavirus are:
- Facilitating stay in case of unemployment and reduced income: many countries have extended permits or removed obligations to leave, to prevent legally staying migrants from falling into an irregular situation.
- Extending coverage of support measures
- Extending work rights
- A number of communication campaigns aimed at preventing a backlash in public opinion against immigrants in the course of the pandemic, with a particular focus on tackling misinformation regarding the role of migrants in the spread of the virus. The United Nations has provided guidance. The German anti-discrimination agency launched a dedicated campaign to raise awareness about the rise and provides information on how victims can obtain help. Some countries have publicly recognized the contribution of immigrants in fighting the pandemic.
The 2021 World Refugee Day theme is very apt to our experience especially last year when hate speech against migrants and refugees were at a height. After all, “Together we heal, learn and shine”. We are much more blessed than million others regardless of the prolonged lockdown. Let’s show the better side of humanity.