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What happens if the tables are turned?

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We could become migrants and refugees ourselves when global warming heats up the planet, warns Mary Magdalen Das; so let's treat the migrant workers in our midst with respect and dignity.

Recently, I had the opportunity to participate in an exposure trip, to better understand the situation of migrants and refugees in our country.  From the reports of abuse I had read or heard of migrants and displaced people, I tried to imagine the worst.  “Am I going to be shocked by what I will see and hear?

The first group we met were Indonesian migrant workers in Klang, four men and a woman.  Having exchanged greetings, they remained eyes downcast and arms folded as if in slave submission.

Choking with emotion

After brief introductions, we listened to their stories.  Mega was the first to share, in a subdued voice, hardly audible and choking with emotion.  She had been employed as a maid.  Her day started at 5.00 am and she worked without a break until 1.00 am the next morning. Meals consisted of leftovers, stored in the freezer and doled out in portions each day. Mega had not been paid for eight months. Unable to take the abuse any more, she left without informing her employers.  Her passport expired soon after, thus making her an undocumented migrant.

In another encampment for refugees, Razak, representing the refugee community, said 60,000 ethnic Rohingas were registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Six hundred of them were located in the vicinity. They work at menial jobs in the market place, collect and sell recyclable items, and toil at construction sites. Some one hundred children, between the ages of one and 12 do not go to school.

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Jolting our comfort zones

Listening to their stories, I had the feeling that I was on sacred ground. Each one we met that day had their own share of risking lives, of leaving family and loved ones, in the quest for a decent life and some means of a livelihood. But instead of a better life, they encountered deception, betrayal, rape, robbery, sheer abuse, neglect and worst of all, the experience of being bought and sold like ‘commodities’ by profiteers and human traffickers, each one making some profit as the ‘human commodity’ changed hands.

The experiences of these displaced people should jolt us out of our comfort zones and awaken us from this stupor that ‘all is well and life is okay’. We need to be aware and concerned that our comfort zones, our little “safe bubbles” are very fragile, temporary and extremely vulnerable and could easily crumble.

The survival of each one of us is intrinsically woven into that of these other brothers and sisters around us. We cannot pass by on the other side anymore.  In small but significant ways, we can reach out and touch one life, comfort one soul, bring a glimmer of hope and in doing so, start giving them back their dignity and freedom as fellow human beings.

In this era of globalisation and the growing global village, we cannot anymore draw boundaries or say “This is my land, you cannot come in”. As long as unequal distribution of wealth and corrupt governments exist, the exodus of people seeking a means of survival outside their home countries will continue.

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Global warming alarm bells

In the coming decades, the reasons for migration will go beyond economics.  One area where alarm bells are ringing is the degradation of our environment and climate change.    A stark  warning already has comes  from  a  new  report by the Intergovernmental Panel on climate Change (IPCC).  In the next decade or so, hundreds of millions of people from equatorial regions will be subjected to forced migration due to climatic change that will make many parts of the world uninhabitable.

With this backdrop, somehow, somewhere and sometime we have to join hands and say, “This world is ours….so let us care for one another and share the blessings before us.”

Our history proves we are all migrants in some way. As Dr Spenser Wells, project director of the Genographic Project, researching the journey of human origin says, our ancestors took ancient migratory paths to populate the planet and in spite of our diverse appearances, we are all part of the same family tree and share a common origin.

I believe, in this new millennium, the phenomenon of migrants and refugees all over the world is challenging us to return to our inherent nature to live as members of one human family. This is a tough challenge but an inevitable one that we will have to be prepared to face for what the near future will bring.

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Mary Magdalen Das is a freelance journalist working with an NGO involved in advocacy issues.


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