, , , ,

AN old saga with new actors. Boat people are again on the move. While the boats have been taking to the sea and the seas have been taking the boats for quite a while, the plight of boat people is once again grabbing world headlines.

Indonesia’s navy recently intercepted, at the behest of Australia, a boat carrying 260 Sri Lankans bound for Australia.

In another corner of the world, 76 Sri Lankans made it all the way to the west coast of Canada in a decrepit old boat hoping to join almost 200,000 other Sri Lankans who now make Canada their home.

Canada already hosts the largest concentration of Sri Lankan Tamils outside of Sri Lanka.

Less well known are the many other boatloads of African, Arab and Asian refugees and illegal migrants that take to the sea each year. They are all part of the millions of refugees and migrants globally that are on the move in search of security, stability and a better life.

In Asia, Myanmar refugees have been fleeing repression for over two decade now and are to be found scattered all across Southeast Asia, in varying degrees of servitude and abuse, while waiting resettlement in the West. Sri Lankan Tamils are now set to join them.

Thousands of others from war-ravaged countries are also trying to flee. In 2001, Prime Minister John Howard of Australia dispatched commandos to prevent a boatload of Afghans from entering Australia. Howard even set up an offshore centre to process asylum seekers; “process” being another word for finding ways to send them back as expeditiously as possible.

Hundreds of thousands of Africans and Arabs make the perilous journey across the Mediterranean each year hoping to get into Europe. In 2008 alone, some 333,000 asylum claims were made in Europe.

Malaysia, geographically located in the heart of Southeast Asia, has become both a destination and a transshipment point for migrants and refugees. Porous borders and official corruption, as well as better than average regional economic growth, make Malaysia an attractive destination.

Visit any city or town in Malaysia today and you’ll find people from all over Asia, the Middle East, and even parts of the Caucasus. It has given new meaning to the term “a nation of immigrants.”

Some estimates indicate that recent migrants already make up more than 10% of our population. Is anyone really thinking of the long-term political and social consequences of this massive inflow of migrants? We urgently need to have a national debate on this important issue but that is another story.

Malaysia has also borne the brunt of boat people in the past. More than 200,000 Vietnamese boat people landed on our east coast in the years following the fall of Saigon in 1975. We reluctantly provided sanctuary until they could be resettled in third countries.

The late Datuk Ruby Lee, then Secretary-General of the Malaysian Red Crescent, played a major role in providing humanitarian relief and care for the boat people. It is disappointing that she did not receive greater recognition for her sterling service to our nation.

Today the world has become increasingly less hospitable to boat people who are seen as queue jumpers and opportunists. The endless flow of refugees and migrants has engendered a certain weariness and compassion fatigue has set in.

The latest wave of boat people should also give us cause for reflection. Why is it that so many Asians, Arabs and Africans feel compelled to risk everything to find refuge in the West?

Political leaders in the developing world regularly blame the West for the unfortunate conditions we often find ourselves in. Sure, the West has had a hand in much of our misery. Western intervention and interference, for example, has brought untold dislocation and hardship. And their manipulation of the trading and financial systems has impoverished many developing countries.

There will be no end to the saga of boat people until they are willing to help shape a more equitable global order, one that gives developing countries a better chance to prosper and grow.

But that is not the full picture. So often it is our own corruption and abuse of power, our own intolerance and prejudice, that has made life miserable for so many of our own people. It’s part of the reason why so many flee, why so many end up dead on foreign shores or traded like cattle in the sex-shops and sweat-shops of the world.

The boat people are but our struggling masses voting with their feet for the freedom, good governance and opportunity to prosper that they don’t find at home.

In this sense, the new wave of boat people is yet another unhappy reminder of how far we in the developing world still have to go.

The hopes and dreams of a better tomorrow that were so implicit in our struggles for independence decades ago, have not been realized for the vast majority of our peoples.

It represents a staggering failure of leadership as much as anything else.