SOUTH-EAST ASIA'S MIGRANT CRISIS

Malaysia cannot be soft on migrants

Rohingyas from Myanmar receiving medical assistance at a shelter in Kuala Langsa, Aceh province, on Sunday. Indonesia has taken in about 1,400 immigrants in Aceh, but say that many migrants it encounters are bound for Malaysia. So far, there are over
Rohingyas from Myanmar receiving medical assistance at a shelter in Kuala Langsa, Aceh province, on Sunday. Indonesia has taken in about 1,400 immigrants in Aceh, but say that many migrants it encounters are bound for Malaysia. So far, there are over 35,000 registered Rohingya migrants in Malaysia.PHOTO: REUTERS

MALAYSIA has to be careful in sending the right message to the migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh. If we are seen to be soft and seemingly ready to accommodate them, our shores will soon be filled with them.

Malaysia and Indonesia are preferred destinations because the perception is that both these countries are Muslim-majority and have shown sympathy for the Rohingya people in the past. And this is further accentuated by the presence of a huge foreign workforce in Malaysia, comprising both legal and illegal workers, that gives the impression that Malaysia is an attractive destination to eke out a living.

The recent events, where boatloads of these migrants suddenly made it into Malaysian territory, have made us more aware of the different ways through which these migrants have landed on our shores. First, it shows how porous our borders are. It is so easy for foreigners to enter our seas and our shores, with little prevention or detection by the authorities. That is, of course, nothing new to Malaysians, especially those in Sabah.

The Abu Sayyaf has long known how easy it is to come over to Malaysia, grab a few Malaysians and foreigners, and hold them for ransom. It is a lucrative business for these kidnappers who, amazingly, still think of themselves as freedom fighters in the name of religion. In reality, they are not even terrorists, but just plain criminals.

Much more brazen are recent reports of how the Thais involved in the syndicates, using fishing boats, had unloaded these migrants on our shores, treating Malaysia as a dumping ground. Who are these people who brought them to our shores - Thai fishermen, Thai army personnel or the Thai courier service? Again, how did they enter our coastal jurisdiction with such ease?

Unlike the Indonesians, who send these migrants off after giving them water and food, Malaysia has actually taken them into the detention centres, with no time frame as to when they will be asked to continue their journey. The Indonesians seem to have spun their story pretty well - they are saying these migrants do not really want to stay in Indonesia, that their destination is Malaysia.

Mr Arrmanatha Nasir, a spokesman for Indonesia's Foreign Ministry, reportedly said an Indonesian ship had given provisions to a migrant boat it encountered on patrol in the Strait of Malacca before the boat continued on its way to Malaysia, which, he said, was its intended destination. "The people on the boat did not want to go to Indonesia, but they asked for help, clean water and food," he said. "After the aid was given, they parted."

That's brilliant, Pak, and certainly very much in the spirit of Asean solidarity and the much touted brotherhood ties between our two countries. It was only later that the Indonesians took in about 1,400 immigrants in Aceh.

Let's face it, Malaysians are people with loads of sympathy and compassion. Then, there is the added dimension of religion. But we have to use our heads too, not just our hearts, in dealing with the increasing number of migrants coming to Malaysia.

We cannot afford to give the impression that we will take them in, even temporarily, because news will soon travel back home that they were welcomed in Malaysia.

Yes, it is painful to read news reports of overcrowded traffickers' boats with their human cargo, including women and children, but Malaysia is already overflowing with immigrants, many of whom are illegals.

Older Malaysians will recall that in May 1975, the first boatload of 47 Vietnamese refugees arrived in Malaysia from Vietnam. Pulau Bidong in Terengganu was used as a refugee island to house the boat people trickling in but, two years later, boats arriving from Vietnam became a near-daily occurrence.

It was reported that by January 1979, there were 18,000 Vietnamese on the island and, by June 1979, it was said to be the most heavily populated place on earth, with about 40,000 refugees crowded into a flat area hardly larger than a football field.

The Pulau Bidong camp was finally shut down in 1990 and the refugees were moved to Sungai Besi in Kuala Lumpur. It took Malaysia 20 years before the last of the 250,000 Vietnamese refugees finally left the country.

But compare the situation then to the estimated millions of registered and illegal foreign workers in Malaysia now. It would not be wrong to say that it has become a security issue. The majority of Malaysians are sick and tired of the huge influx of foreigners, mostly unskilled, into Malaysia.

It is reassuring that Deputy Home Minister Wan Junaidi Jaafar said that Malaysia cannot welcome them. He has rightly said that "if we continue to welcome them, then hundreds of thousands will come from Myanmar and Bangladesh". The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has so far registered over 35,000 Rohingya migrants in Malaysia, but most people believe the number is much higher.

Turning these migrants away would invite criticism by non-governmental organisations and activists, but no country has joined in the chorus of support because governments know they cannot simply accept them and, if they do so, it would be hugely unpopular with their electorate.

Despite the hypocritical criticism by the United States against Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand, the US will surely not accept these Rohingyas and Bangladeshis.

In fact, the US appears reluctant to even provide direct help in search and rescue, with US State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke saying "this is a regional issue, it needs a regional solution in short order". We will be quite happy to send these refugees to the US.

Prime Minister Najib Razak, meanwhile, has said that Malaysia will not tolerate any form of human trafficking, adding that the government would take the "necessary action" and that anyone found to be perpetrating this injustice and contravening Malaysian laws would be held accountable.

The source of the problem is Myanmar. Malaysia should exercise its authority as the chairman of Asean to deal with Myanmar for its persecution of the Rohingya minority, who are effectively stateless.

No one would leave his country in a rickety boat, gambling with his life, unless the situation is desperate. Worse, it is shocking to read of extremist Buddhist monks calling for the killing of these Rohingya people.

With the Malaysian and Thai authorities cracking down on the smuggling of these people via the jungles, the sea, which is more dangerous, has become the preferred route. But Malaysia should chart its course correctly, too, because it is one problem that it does not need.

THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK