While we might never have to flee our country for survival, that should not stop us from empathising with our neighbours who have fled theirs, says Yasmin Bathamanathan.
“Hey Yasmin, why don’t you extend your stay, and if you get caught, just say that you are a refugee,” joked one of my friends on my upcoming trip to the United Kingdom.
“Many people do that here in Malaysia. They overstay their visa and then claim that they are seeking asylum, it’s that easy,” said another.
I knew they were not serious, and it was all said in jest, but the fact that these concepts cross their minds does raise concern.
The only reason the topic of asylum-seeking was joked about in this particular setting was because all the participants of the interaction – my friends and I – have the privilege of leading comfortable lives in a relatively affluent and safe county.
None of us is in a situation where the threat of having to flee our home country is real and imminent. We can laugh about it because most likely we would not come to a point in our lives where in order to survive, we need to seek asylum.
Which is why we can, from the comfort of our middle-class existence and bubble of privilege, joke about something that is the reality for the 59.5m people worldwide who are forcibly displaced, according to official UNHCR data from last year.
And that is the power we have over the refugees and asylum seekers – their reality is laughable when applied to us, and to a graver extent, we do judge them based on these concepts that we have.
In a recent visit to the clinic, I got into a conversation with my doctor on the state of Malaysia. One of the issues we discussed was Malaysia’s relationship with refugees and asylum seekers.
“We don’t care about the Rohingyas because of who they are. If they were blue-eyed Bosnians, we would have opened our doors to them welcomingly, just like how we are ready to welcome the Syrians now,” said my doctor.
Even though all three groups of people were at one point or are now persecuted, Malaysia had the privilege to weigh out the kind of support it was willing to give and to which group, which reveals our prejudices as well.
When we had thousands of people – from Myanmar and Bangladesh – stranded at sea in dire conditions and seeking our help just a few months ago, we extended our help, albeit grudgingly.
Yet when it came to the Syrians, our prime minister announced at the 70th United Nations General Assembly in New York that Malaysia would take in 3,000 Syrian refugees over the next three years.
“People around the world cry out for our help. We cannot, we must not, pass on by,” the PM was reported to have said.
All this while Malaysia insists on categorising refugees, asylum seekers and UNHCR card-holders as illegal immigrants.
We have a government that is selective in offering to help and runs its selection process from within the privileged bubble the officials have comfortably built their mini-empires.
It means that we as a nation have yet to unpack our privilege and start seeing things for what they are. It means that we do not have an intersectional approach to humanitarian aid – preferring to assist those who fall into the “right” (read: light skinned, Middle Eastern/Western) category.
While we as Malaysians might never go through our lives having to flee our country for survival, that should not stop us from empathising with our neighbours who are in that situation. Neither should we take the subject of asylum seeking and refugees lightly for it is disrespectful of the millions of people whose lives are in imminent danger.
As we prepare to welcome the first of the 3,000 Syrians our government has so kindly offered to host, let’s not forget the thousands of Rohingyas who have been part of our society for a few decades now.
Nor should we ever forget that the new National Security Council Bill gives our PM the very power that, when abused, can lead to us Malaysians joining the growing number of forcibly displaced peoples.
Source: The Malaysian Insider