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Plight of the dispossesed Rohingya

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Surely, we, who are more fortunate, can show some compassion to the struggling Rohingya who made it to our country and are fighting for survival here, Ch’ng Chin Yeow writes.

All of us would have experienced some hard times in life.

However, I cannot imagine what psychological baggage I would carry with me if I had to live through the horror, hardships and despair that so many Rohingya have had to endure. God have mercy on the suffering of our Rohingya brothers and sisters.

Recently, amid the Covid-19 pandemic, many Malaysians spread fake news and directed hate messages at the Rohingya. The problem became so bad that the office of UN High Commissioner for Refugees had to rebut the misinformation regarding Rohingya refugees.

Unfortunately, Malaysia is not a signatory to the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, 1951.

Some politicians and many Malaysians are on the same page on this issue, readily accusing the Rohingya refugees of being troublemakers coming to Malaysia to take advantage of our kindness. Some go to the extent of saying the Rohingya are well taken care of already and do not deserve any empathy or compassion.

Sadly, those who criticise the Rohingya have forgotten that many of our ancestors also came to this country as migrants and possibly refugees. Many of us fail to realise that we are just a mirror image of these people whom we despise and criticise.

The problems associated with refugees are universal. There must be cooperation among nations to work together to solve these problems. Jordan, for example, cannot solve its problems with the millions of refugees within its borders. It needs a concerted effort and multilateral cooperation among different nations for refugees around the world to be relocated. Richer countries need to extend their help to resettle refugees.

The 1951 Refugee Convention mandates all signatories to abide by certain guidelines. These include respecting the rights of the refugees to education and employment. Some quarters had made strong arguments for undocumented refugees to be allowed to work to ease the earlier labour shortage we faced.

Children of Rohingya refugees are not allowed to register in any government schools. It is sad for young children to be denied the right to a basic education, but that is currently the policy. It is only through the efforts of some NGOs that some refugee children have a chance of obtaining some education.

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The resistance from Malaysians in providing education to refugee children is strong. Is it because parents are afraid their children will be in the same classroom or school as these refugee children whom they regard as dirty, poor or prone to illness? Is there a way out to resolve these issues – through medical check-ups and some financial assistance, for instance?

To claim that the Rohingya are not refugees but mere economic migrants is a travesty. The reality is that under present circumstances, the Rohingya are stateless as Myanmar refuses to recognise them as nationals. Their only hope is to be resettled in other countries. They have no state to return to.

If the situation is not dire and desperate, no one in their right mind including pregnant women and children would want to risk their lives and flee to another country. Just look at the homeless people along Jalan Kapitan Keling in Penang some of whom are Rohingya refugees. Would they have fled their homes lightly just to end up being homeless, sleeping on pavements, not being able to work or, for their children, to be educated? No one makes these decisions lightly.

When people call them dirty and refer to them as an ugly sight, it is actually we, the Malaysians who are dirty and ugly for allowing these people to exist in such horrendous conditions and to despise and hate them.

The Chinese migrated from southern China under less dire conditions. They were able to travel to “South Sea” in relative comfort. The Rohingya, in contrast, do not have such ‘luxury’. They had to flee rape, mass executions, destroyed villages, in rickety boats. God and Buddha wept.

Because of the second chance given to our ancestors to migrate to Malaya, Chinese Malaysians are doing fairly well with many success stories. The Rohingya need to be given their second chance. They are awaiting an opportunity to be resettled to a third country. By helping these refugees when they are at their lowest, Malaysia can help them be more prepared for their inevitable resettlement to a third country.

By being humane and helpful to them when they are down and out and at their lowest, we would allow them to see the better side of humanity and society’s compassion. They would harbour less anger towards society and would be less likely to be radicalised.

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This would be a small step in bridging the cultural and religious divide that is so toxic in this world and in Malaysia. Chinese Malaysians have experienced this toxicity first hand. Maybe we can just play a small role in breaking this divide.

My grandfather arrived in Penang in 1927 a penniless man. He had made no contribution to Malaya prior to his arrival in Penang. No one questioned if he had contributed anything to society when he arrived. Over time, he started a small business, and that was his ultimate contribution to society.

Neither did anyone ask if Steve Jobs’ father had contributed anything to the US when he arrived as a refugee. Are Steve Jobs’ contributions to the world even measurable? Everyone needs to be given a second chance.

Despite refugees not being allowed to work in Malaysia, I believe there are already Malaysians who are benefiting from these refugees. They are a cheap source of labour with no access to the Employees Provident Fund or Social Security Organisation contributions. They are also not protected under labour law. Their employers are not interested in fighting for their rights and levelling the employer-employee balance of power.

Because of their ineligibility to work in Malaysia, they are exploited by employers with low wages and harsh working conditions. To many, an undocumented migrant is only a “workhorse”. Their exploitation leads to their resentment and unhappiness. This resentment and unhappiness prompts Malaysians to react by labelling them as ungrateful. Until Malaysians treat the Rohingya already here as fellow human beings, the hostilities will persist.

In a neighbouring country many years ago, an injured and crippled undocumented worker was heard crying for help under a drain. He was left to die by his employer because the latter panicked and feared prosecution for hiring an undocumented worker. One wonders how many such cases have occurred in Malaysia but have not been reported.

Helping the most disadvantaged group in a community will always stir up the jealousy of the group just above them. To them, the disadvantaged are now the privileged ones. Also, their position on the social ladder is threatened. This is a tough issue to address and overcome. It calls for fair and equitable policies.

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Rohingya who commit any criminal acts should be subject to the long arm of the law and prosecuted accordingly. They are a disgrace to their people. They bring ill repute to their community. There are laws in Malaysia to deal with these criminals.

But there is no need to punish the entire community because of some unsavoury characters. It is also not right to punish everyone for the crimes of the few.

Many more refugees will arrive in the coming decades. These will be the environmental refugees, mostly from the arid regions and low-lying coastal areas. These refugees will have to migrate to survive in search of a livelihood when their homelands are no longer habitable. Experts predict that many from Bangladesh will have to flee their homelands as sea levels rise because 70% of Bangladesh is in the floodplain of the delta of the Brahmaputra River.

Who knows, we Malaysians might also end up as refugees because of an unforeseen disaster or because of global warming. We hope that if that happens others will give us a second chance, just as we should give the Rohingya a second chance.

The Rohingya have a life experience that none of us will ever imagine: plunged into statelessness and homelessness, slaughtered en masse, family members raped and tortured, homes burned and farmlands confiscated, fleeing with whatever meagre worldly possessions they can carry with them – aluminium pots and pans, cane baskets and their few chickens and other livestock. What a pitiful sight! I cannot imagine what psychological baggage I would carry with me for the rest of my life if I had to go through that.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Gutterres has described the Rohingya as “one of, if not the most discriminated people in the world”.

Surely, we, who are more fortunate, can lend a hand and show some compassion and empathy to those struggling Rohingya who made it to our country and are fighting for survival here.

Ch’ng Chin Yeow has an interest in many issues and subjects, including history, mineralogy and human behaviour. Based in Penang, he truly likes to be a busybody

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