Friday, January 6, 2012

Refugees have rights, too

Myanmar refugee children enjoying a magic show hosted by St Francis Xavier Church in Petaling Jaya

ON Dec 10, 1948, these words were adopted in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood."

How we treat those who flee from danger and persecution and seek help at our doorstep is a reflection of the morality and humanity of our society.

Malaysia's refugee story began in 1975 with the arrival of Indochinese refugees by boat.  A majority of them were resettled to other countries and some returned home safely.

During the same period, Malaysia offered local integration to some 13,000 Muslim Cham refugees from Cambodia. And in the 1970s and 1980s, Malaysia witnessed the arrival of some 50,000 Filipino Muslims from Mindanao who fled to Sabah.

These refugees were received and eventually locally settled into Sabah by the government with the support of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Since then, we have received refugees from Bosnia, Aceh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Somalia.

UNHCR reported that as of end October last year, it had registered 95,300 refugees and asylum-seekers: 87,300 are from Myanmar and 8,000 from other countries, including some 4,300 Sri Lankans, 1,100 Somalis, 740 Iraqis and 440 Afghans.

Some 29 per cent of refugees and asylum-seekers are women and there are also 19,500 children below the age of 18.

There are also a large number of "persons of concern" to UNHCR who are still waiting to be registered -- a process that can take some time as the organisation is restricted by limited resources to quickly register all new asylum applications.  Refugee communities estimate the population of unregistered refugees and asylum-seekers to be 10,000 persons.

Because they are not given work permits, asylum seekers in Malaysia can become victims of exploitation at their workplace, with very low pay, unsafe conditions and without any form of insurance coverage.

Children form around 20 per cent of the estimated total population of asylum seekers.  Less than 40 per cent of them have access to any type of education -- mainly informal classes are conducted by non-governmental and faith-based organisations --  but children attending these classes cannot take any recognised examinations and receive internationally-accepted qualifications.

It is a selfish society that says to those fleeing from danger and persecution and seeking help at our doorstep that we cannot shelter and feed them until our own people are comfortable and well-fed, we cannot clothe them until our own people are well-dressed, we cannot give them jobs because we already have too many foreign workers in our midst, and we cannot educate their children because that would divert precious resources from our own children.

International attention focused on the plight of asylum seekers in Malaysia when on Aug 31, the High Court of Australia ruled that the refugee swap deal was invalid.

The principal reason is that Malaysia is not legally bound to provide the access and protections required under Australian law in order for Malaysia to be validly declared as a country to which asylum seekers could be sent for processing of their asylum claims.

In June, then deputy secretary-general (Registration and Immigration) of the Home Ministry, Datuk Raja Azahar Raja Abdul Manap (who has since retired), told the New Straits Times that even though Malaysia was not a signatory to the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees or its 1967 Protocol, it wanted to establish itself as a country that was raising the standard of treating asylum seekers.

In fulfillment of the prime minister's Malaysia Day pledge to transform Malaysia into a modern and progressive nation, and consistent with our international obligation as a member of UN Human Rights Council, Malaysia must provide protection by law to asylum seekers and refugees to guarantee their access to employment, education and healthcare.

Source: New Straits Time

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