In the past few weeks, the world has witnessed fresh, new waves of violence against ‘the most persecuted group in the world’. On 31 October 2016, The Independent reported widespread killing and raping of Rohingya minority by Burmese soldiers (1). The Huffington Post narrated similar news on 10 November 2016, in which the author warned of an impending genocide against Myanmar’s Rohingya. This latest surge of aggression was said to have been triggered by attacks on the border guard post on 9 October which left nine Burmese police officers dead. Consequently, Rohingyas were collectively declared guilty despite the lack of evidence (2). Massive retaliation as a collective punishment by the state institutions (army and police) was launched.
On 13 November 2016, Al Jazeera reported this mass killing (3), quoting the statement of Human Rights Watch (HRW) on the existence of satellite images of several Rohingya villages in Rakhine state being burnt. According to HRW, 430 buildings in three villages in north Maungdaw were destroyed. The BBC announced that around 130 Rohingya were killed over a month (4), while Washington Post estimated the number of deaths at 150 over several days (5). This did not account for those injured, missing, and displaced. Some Malaysian news outlets narrated horrible accounts of massacre and torture (6). What is interesting nevertheless was the lack of strong, enthusiastic condemnation by any world leaders immediately following the incident. Even more ironic – the current leader of Myanmar is a Nobel Laureate in peace and a so-called freedom fighter!
In Malaysia, Rohingyas make up the majority of refugee populations. Despite the seasonal sympathy that many Malaysians show to them, the condition of Rohingyas is by far extremely deplorable. The Malaysian government at large does not officially recognize refugees, thus making any formal, systematic efforts to address this crisis very difficult. The Rohingya refugees in this country mostly live in extreme poverty, as working is made illegal. Other basic services such as affordable education and healthcare are also denied, or at least impossible without excessive fees which most cannot afford anyway.
On top of that, exploitation and harassment of refugees occur at almost every level due to the lack of protection of this group by law. For instance, it is not uncommon to hear stories of refugees having to pay several times more than what ordinary Malaysians are charged, when riding taxis. Many employers pay them less, or exploit their energy for free. At hospital and clinic registration counters, they can face unnecessary intimidation and ‘interrogation’, and sometimes receive threats of being sent to security personnel if something goes wrong. Hospital admission fees for refugees are almost double the Malaysians’ fees. The so-called law-enforcers on the other hand, are the ones committing the most grievous crimes against this vulnerable group through extortion of money – refugees are usually given two choices: pay bribes or face detention!
Malaysians in general seem to agree that the mass killing and persecution of Rohingya minority in Myanmar is despicable, ugly and deserves the highest degree of condemnation. However, the lack of proper framework instituted by the government (due to lack of political will), has created an atmosphere of confusion and vagueness as how to deal with this problem. This to a large extent (aggravated by negative portrayals of ‘migrants’ by the media), has resulted in a lot of ambivalence among Malaysians. While they have sympathy when reading news, uneasiness begins to build up when they see refugees entering the country in masses.
There are various concerns pertaining to this. First, constraint of resources. The common question – we do not have enough for ourselves, how can we accommodate for others? – is frequently repeated. The answers to that question can be:
1. We have more than enough, if we know how to manage our resources well. If however, the current status quo continues (corruption, lack of transparency in management of wealth, wastage, etc), there is never enough regardless of whether refugees exist or not. As the saying goes, “The world has enough for everyone’s needs, but not everyone’s greed”.
2. Refugees are not necessarily an economic burden. If they are, it is mainly because we have marginalized, instead of empowering them. This ‘refugee-burden’ equation is not completely based on evidence. A number of studies have debunked this myth – refugees have been found to positively contribute to the economy of host states (7-9) by boosting productivity, creating a new market, increasing consumption, and promoting trade and business activities.
The second concern is on demographic effects of migration and cultural conflicts – a notion usually founded by ‘fear of the other’ and a sense of prejudice. Multiculturalism and diversity in reality, creates a stronger and more mature society. It promotes more meaningful communication, encourages sharing of ideas, widens individuals’ horizons and perspectives, fosters humanistic values and improves productivity. Pluralism is a source of strength, creativity and innovation. Research has shown that the advantage of cultural diversity related to immigration outweighed its costs, with regards to innovation and work performance (10).
There are many direct and indirect ways of working for this cause. We have the power to persuade our government to take a more active role in championing this issue at the regional and international level. Academics, field experts and policy-makers should sit together to formulate a more effective and humane approach in managing refugees. Pressuring the Burmese government through the Myanmar embassy is another option. Raise this issue wherever we go. Initiate forums and discussions. Write about it. Volunteer. Get involved with various organizations to help and support the Rohingya refugees in the country. We may not always be able to create an impact at the global level by interfering directly in the conflict, but we can certainly undertake many small efforts to make things better for those who have fled.
Showing compassion to those in desperation and rebuilding broken lives are not only ‘the right thing to do’, but they also reflect who we are – whether we are being true to ourselves, and whether we uphold the values that we want our children to cherish and inherit. Think about it – if we cannot accept the grave injustices, oppression and crimes being perpetrated against Rohingyas in Myanmar, yet we remain indifferent to their sufferings and exploitation in our country (where we are not powerless), aren’t we similarly an oppressor in a different (perhaps lesser) form? As long as we are apathetic and half-hearted, we are guilty of complicity.
7. Jacobsen, K. (2006). Refugees and asylum seekers in urban areas: a livelihoods perspective. Journal of Refugee Studies, 19(3), 273-286.
8. Enghoff, M., Hansen, B., Umar, A., Gildestad, B., Owen, M., & Obara, A. (2010). In search of protection and livelihoods: socio-economic and environmental impacts of Dadaab refugee camps on host communities. Nairobi: Royal Danish Embassy.
9. Betts, A., Bloom, L., Kaplan, J., & Omata, N. (2014). Refugee economies: Rethinking popular assumptions. Humanitarian Innovation Project.
10. Niebuhr, A. (2010). Migration and innovation: does cultural diversity matter for regional R&D activity?. Papers in Regional Science, 89(3), 563-585.
Dr Raudah Mohd Yunus
Researcher and Activist
Asean Young Leaders Forum Malaysia