The social and economic conditions of refugees should be improved
ON Thursday, Tan Sri Razali Ismail, the former United Nations special representative to Myanmar, spoke of the need to alleviate the lot of Rohingya refugees living in this country. As the predicament of this Muslim minority has come under the international spotlight following the violence in June, it is understandable that Malaysia’s former permanent representative to the world body has singled them out. Indeed, on the same day that he spoke to this newspaper, there was a meeting in Doha organised by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and Qatar Charity to coordinate assistance to the tens of thousands who have been internally displaced in the state of Rakhine.
Nevertheless, as expected as this may be from an active participant in last month’s Perdana Global Peace Foundation international conference that sought solutions to their plight, as far as the issue of refugees in this country is concerned, the focus should not exclusively be on the Rohingya. Indeed, the pertinent points Razali raised about their lack of access to social services and employment opportunities and the lack of protection against harassment are as relevant to the other refugees from Myanmar and other countries, such as Sri Lanka, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan. While there may be legal grounds to differentiate a refugee from an asylum seeker, there should be no distinction between the diverse groups of genuine refugees in this country. Paradoxically, of course, it is the fact that no official distinction has been made between those registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the undocumented foreign workers that explains why refugees and asylum seekers are vulnerable to arrest and detention, exploitation and extortion. Although they may be better off than they were back home, it is often a tenuous existence that begs to be ameliorated.
This is not to say that the government is unsympathetic to refugees. They are not confined to camps, the Immigration raids have stopped, the UN refugee agency has been able to release those registered refugees who have been detained, and those with UNHCR cards can get treatment at government clinics. Nevertheless, what is clear is that as long as they are not permitted to work and have little legal status and protection, their lives will remain in limbo. But just as getting the Myanmar government to recognise the Rohingya as citizens will take time, “given the complex nature of the issues”, as Razali put it, so will such shifts in refugee policy. In the meantime, advocates and activists like Razali should mobilise support for humanitarian assistance and engage with the government to improve refugee access and rights.