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The predicament of Myanmar refugees in Malaysia has been grabbing international media attention. There are growing calls for the Government to address the issue.

FOR the last several weeks, the international press has been highlighting the sad plight of the more than 80,000 Myanmar refugees in Malaysia.

An explosive report by the United States Senate Foreign Relations Committee that was released recently alleges the involvement of some Malaysian officials in the trafficking of these refugees. The refugees have reportedly been abused and harshly treated by other government agencies, including Rela.

The Government has until now, consistently denied all allegations of mistreatment, abuse or trafficking. The former minister of home affairs rejected these allegations outright.

The allegations themselves are not new. Malaysian and other NGOs have been voicing similar concerns for years. Malaysian print and television media have also featured investigative reports on this issue. Just google ‘Burmese refugees – Malaysia’ and dozens of sites will pop-up.

The UN High Commission for Refugees has also expressed alarm at the treatment of refugees in Malaysia. Anyone who bothers to seek out these hapless refugees, in and around our larger cities, and talk to them, as I have, will be shocked by their stories of harassment, intimidation and abuse.

Of course, there may be some exaggeration involved. Nevertheless, their stories are credible, compelling and distressing, and must be taken seriously. Denial is not an option any longer.

It is to our great shame that we treat people who are fleeing from oppression in such a callous manner. It goes against the norms of decency and violates international conventions on the treatment of refugees. It even flies in the face of our own claim to be “a caring society.”

Pretending that this problem does not exist in the hope that it would go away is not going to work. The issue has now gained international traction.

European and Canadian parliamentarians, together with members of the US Congress, have taken up the cry, as have many respected NGOs.

Even our own parliamentarians are demanding action. We can therefore expect more negative publicity and criticism from abroad. It is going to get very messy unless appropriate action is taken.

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak has done the right thing in calling for a thorough investigation. Our Inspector-General of Police Tan Sri Musa Hassan has promised the same. Officials and others who are found to be complicit in these abuses must be brought to book. We have no obligation to defend them or cover up for them.

However, these encouraging statements must now be followed up with a more comprehensive plan of action that should include the following:

First, a policy decision must be made to recognise that legitimate refugees are different from illegal and other economic migrants. The UNHCR already has in place a credible refugee registration system. Malaysian agencies should recognise UNHCR refugee documentation and extend appropriate protection to those who hold them. The harassment of refugees must end immediately.

Second, the Government should henceforth give priority to documented refugees when it comes to recruiting temporary foreign labour. It makes no sense to contract thousands of foreign workers from abroad, and particularly from Myanmar, when we already have a huge pool of unemployed refugees within our borders.

By providing refugees with legal employment, they will be able to live in dignity while awaiting resettlement in third countries.

Third, the Government should acknowledge the work of our NGOs in caring for the refugees despite many limitations, including hostility from some government agencies.

These NGOs are already on the ground and have a good track record. With even modest government assistance, support and encouragement, they can do much to help the refugees.

Fourth, the Government should take the initiative to host an Asean conference on refugees. Resettlement countries, as well as China, should be included.

The objective would be to construct a proper regional framework to prevent the abuse and trafficking of refugees and speed up their resettlement to third countries.

Myanmar’s military rulers must also be persuaded to end their campaign of terror against their own minorities.

There is, of course, the fear that extending humanitarian support to refugees would open the floodgates, so to speak.

The real problem we face, however, is not from genuine refugees but from out of control illegal immigration that is exacerbated by corruption and short-sighted labour recruitment policies. The unfortunate people fleeing from tyranny in Myanmar should not have to suffer because of this.

Najib has a unique opportunity to mend the damage done to our international image and to restore our own self-respect. Bold measures are needed, and needed quickly.

Malaysians, too, can help by reaching out to these refugees with the care and compassion that has always been our hallmark, instead of reacting with fear and suspicion.

In the final analysis, the measure of a country is not the high ideals it claims to possess but the compassion and care it shows to the weak and vulnerable in its midst. Malaysia must rise to this challenge.

Datuk Dennis Ignatius is a 36-year veteran of the Malaysian foreign service. He has served in the United Kingdom, China, the United States, Chile and Argentina. He retired as High Commissioner for Malaysia to Canada in July 2008.


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