One refugee without hope is too many

By Nora Murat
June 20, 2011 | The Malaysian Insider

JUNE 20 — Whirring helicopter blades, cast a mini tornado over the mass of humanity below. Outstretched hands from rooftops reached towards the magnificent soaring machine.

As its silhouette shrunk into the horizon, the many bodies pressed against one another slumped in exhaustion. Nevertheless, hope like morning dew on the parched surface of nature continued to balm their panic.

In the darkness of the night, like crayons jammed into a Crayola box, they packed themselves into boats. The elderly, babies, toddlers, youth, adults indiscriminately set sail through the treacherous tides of the South China Sea hoping to escape the fate of approximately 65 000 Vietnamese who were executed by the end of the Vietnam War.

Did they really fare any better?

When Saigon fell to the National Liberation Front (NLF) in 1975, the world witnessed an exodus of what we now refer to as the ‘boat people’. These were Vietnamese people who now feared retribution from their new ‘masters’. Malaysia was among one of the countries whom these refugees turned to.

In credit to Malaysia, it has been reported that Malaysia initially accepted the boat people liberally. Nevertheless, following an overwhelming influx of about 500 arrivals daily which pushed the population of refugee camps to more than 45 000 people, a crackdown was ordered by the government.

Police and naval personnel then resorted to turning away all seaworthy refugee boats. This in turn led to boats being deliberately sunk offshore to stop authorities from towing them back out to sea. An Edmonton Journal report dated December 2, 1978 documents the death toll of boat people fleeing Vietnam to be more than 300.

Even so, at that time Malaysia in collaboration with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) were housing refugees in camps around the country albeit in overcrowded conditions.

One of the main camps was in Pulau Bidong. At a point in time, Malaysia had given temporary asylum to nearly 255 000 Vietnamese boat people. This cooperation with UNHCR continued up till 2005.

The last camp was closed in 2001 and the last Vietnamese boat refugee left Malaysia on 30 August 2005. It has been said that this signalled the end to an era of ‘voluntary’ Malaysian cooperation with the UNHCR.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognises the right to “Freedom of Movement” (Article 13) as one of the fundamental parts to the liberty of a man. Freedom of movement means being able to move and reside freely within the borders of each State as well as having the right to leave any country, including his/her own and later returning.

Denial of this right to leave one’s home may lead to repression and persecution. In fact, this is the main dilemma refugees face.

A refugee is defined in the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (Refugee Convention) as a person who due to fear of being persecuted for reasons of “race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion is unable to continue living in the country he/she currently resides in.

While International Law does not oblige states to provide asylum, Nations sometimes offer ‘temporary protection’. In 2004, in the aftermath of devastation swept in by the tsunami, Malaysia allowed Acheh refugees to temporarily reside and work in the country.

As we mark World Refugee Day on June 20, 2011, Amnesty International Malaysia calls to the wisdom of all Malaysians’ consciences to discard the prejudices we may hold towards this group of human beings.

We also acknowledge and recognise with gratitude the significant contribution this community has made as a workforce towards the development of the country. Most importantly, we call for Malaysians to regard refugees as fellow humans.

According to Amnesty International’s Report, ‘Abused and Abandoned: Refugees Denied Rights in Malaysia’, there are between 90 000 and 170 000 refugees and asylum seekers living in Malaysia.

It is important for us to realise that behind each number lays a person, a soul with a story. Each refugee could be a brother, a sister, a mother, a father, or a friend. They could be yours.

Hence, amidst the rhetoric of swapping asylum seekers and the Government’s 6P Amnesty Programme, let us first solidify our commitment to creating and upholding better human rights standards.

It is Amnesty International Malaysia’s hope that the Government will:

* Ratify the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and bring domestic law, policy and practices in line with these instruments. This would recognise the existence of refugees distinguishing them from undocumented immigrants thus giving them legal status to work and protection from arbitrary detention and arrests.

* Ratify the Convention Against Torture.

* Ensure that basic human rights standards are met in detention centres.

* End criminal penalties and corporal punishments for refugees and asylum-seekers, including in relation to irregular entry.

* Ensure that the principle of non-refoulement is respected.

The United Nation has set the theme for this year’s World Refugee Day as “One Refugee without Hope is too Many” and the Refugee Convention will be celebrating its 60th Anniversary. It’s about time we honour the Grand Dame with ratification.

* Nora Murat is executive director of Amnesty International Malaysia

  1. No comments yet.

You must be logged in to post a comment.