Recognise all refugees: The Star

A Syrian refugee man walks past tents at a makeshift settlement in Bar Elias in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, on Oct 23, 2015.
A Syrian refugee man walks past tents at a makeshift settlement in Bar Elias in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, on Oct 23, 2015. PHOTO: REUTERS

Some 3,000 Syrian refugees will get special treatment when they arrive in Malaysia. So how about extending that approach to all refugees?

Wan Saiful Wan Jan

The Star/Asia News Network

I first became interested in the plight of refugees in Malaysia about three years ago when I visited a learning centre run by a group of Myanmar refugees in Pudu, Kuala Lumpur. Operating from a cramped shophouse, they cater to several hundred students.

I met a few of their teachers. They were volunteers and none of them are qualified teachers. But they all share the passion to help the refugee kids get education. They teach at the learning centre because our Government does not allow refugee children to attend public schools.

That encounter led me to meet with more people who are just as passionate in wanting to help refugee kids get education. I soon discovered that the learning centres in the Pudu area provide mostly primary level education. Not many cater for those who have reached secondary school age.

And that led me into many more meetings to discuss the establishment of Ideas Academy, a charitable learning centre catering for refugee youths aged 12 to 17. Ideas Academy now has 66 students, all very eager to secure a better future for themselves.

I am still navigating through the bureaucracies to obtain a proper legal status for our charity learning centre. The Government officers I met thus far have been very helpful and generous with advice. Clearly they, too, want to help.

I was elated when Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak announced in his speech at the recent United Nations General Assembly that Malaysia will take in 3,000 refugees from Syria. This is a positive step to assist those who need our help.

Najib's speech was particularly heart-warming. He was reported to say that over the years Malaysia has taken "many people fleeing war, starvation and persecution". He went on to say that Malaysia currently has "hundreds of thousands of irregular migrants, and we took in more earlier this year when there was a dire humanitarian situation in the Andaman Sea".

The Prime Minister also called for the world to "respect our common humanity" because according to him "it is only when we transcend the silos of race and faith, only when we look at images of desperate migrants, the victims of extremists, and those whose lives are degraded by hunger and poverty - and see not strangers, but our brothers and sisters, that we will act as our better selves".

Following that speech, Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi announced that Malaysia will provide the incoming Syrian refugees with shelter, education opportunities and temporary jobs. The Home Ministry will also issue special identity cards for them, whereas we have never had that kind of suggestion for those refugees already here.

These are all very good announcements. The Syrian refugees will get special treatment when they arrive in Malaysia. And I am very pleased with this.

Yet I am also very confused. I am confused by the discrimination inherent in all these announcements. Superficially, it feels like our Government wants to create different categories even among the refugees.

The website of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says that as of the end of September 2015, there are 153,850 registered refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia. Of these, 142,630 are from Myanmar. And there are some 33,740 children below the age of 18. Less than 40 per cent of those who are of school age have access to formal education.

I have also been told repeatedly that these refugees live in squalid conditions, with several families sharing overcrowded flats or low-cost houses. I understand that it is almost impossible for them to obtain employment legally.

If they do get a job, it is likely to be in areas described as 3D - dirty, dangerous and difficult. Many also fall prey to the underworld and criminal gangs.

They do not have any identity cards issued to them by our Government. In fact, recently in August our Government even warned the UNHCR to stop issuing refugee cards to the refugees without the consent of the Malaysian Government, threatening the agency with police investigation.

Why is there a double standard? We have hundreds of thousand of refugees who are already here, mainly from our neighbour Myanmar. Yet we focus on those who are not yet here.

We do not allow them to get a job, let alone care about how they will pay for their daily food. We stop their children from getting education. Our current policies seem to be intentionally designed to ensure they live difficult lives.

But then we took the podium in New York to tell the world that we are a proudly humane country because we will bring in 3,000 new refugees, and treat them distinctly differently from those who are already here.

I struggle to understand the logic used by those who displayed these incoherent attitudes.

However, rather than twisting our brains to understand the flawed logic, allow me to make a practical proposal to move forward.

Since we have now found our conscience, how about if all the provisions announced for the Syrian refugees are also accorded to those who are already here today? We have enough discrimination in the country. There is no reason to discriminate the refugees too.

* The writer is chief executive of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (www.ideas.org.my).