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JUNE 20th was World Refugee Day. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), millions of people across the world are forced to flee their homes as a consequence of war and persecution and ethnic, tribal and religious violence.

They often leave everything they have behind and literally run for their lives. For most of us, it is hard to imagine what that must be like though there are no shortage of reminders. Just last week we witnessed heart-rending scenes on television of thousands of ethnic Uzbeks fleeing racial violence in Kyrgyzstan.

Unfortunately, the world is largely a hostile place for refugees. Many live in the shadows – unnoticed, exploited, abused, and unwelcomed.

It would be nice to say that things are different in Malaysia but they are not. Scattered across our nation are dozens of “detention centres,” our own little gulags, where thousands of refugees and illegal immigrants are incarcerated under appalling conditions.

They are deprived of even their most basic rights and endure countless indignities. Many are abused, suffer from malnutrition and die of disease. And, as even the government has acknowledged, they are often trafficked and sold into slavery as well, with the connivance of corrupt officials.

Unsurprisingly, riots break out from time to time in the camps. I suppose you can only push people so far before they break. These are not violent people, just desperate people.

Of course, there are no westerners detained in such camps for no western government would allow its citizens to be so treated, and neither would we dare treat them so. No, the camps are for those who have been abandoned by their own countries.

The vast majority in our camps, for example, are refugees fleeing repression and ethnic cleansing at the hands of Myanmar’s brutal military regime.

To our great shame, they find only hostility and further abuse here. Between 2002 and 2008, more than 4,800 Myanmar refugees were whipped for “immigration offences.” In reality, they were whipped simply for running away from the death and destruction that stalks them in their own land.

And the sad part is that these abuses have been going on for years as a consequence of official indifference and neglect.

In 1995, Irene Fernandez published a major report drawing attention to the abuse, torture and inhumane conditions in our detention centres. Instead of investigating conditions in the camps, the government of the day turned on Irene with a vengeance not often seen in our country. Irene endured nearly 13 years of harassment before she was finally acquitted by the High Court of the charge of maliciously publishing false news.

The 18th century English philosopher, Edmund Burke, once said that, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Good men in government did nothing about the abuse, and evil prevailed.

And it continues, as recent reports by Suaram, Amnesty International and others, clearly show. More Malaysians should take time to read the reports; they will be shocked to discover what is being done in their name.

When the government is prodded by international pressure or by negative publicity, action is quickly promised. Real change, however, is slow in coming.

In February this year, for example, the Home Ministry announced that the government was in the final stages of issuing identification cards to refugees so that they would get at least some recognition and protection. Unfortunately, “final stages” can last a very long time in Malaysia; the cards have still not been issued.

If there is political will and public support, surely it is not impossible to find a just solution to this problem. Surely a country that routinely takes in hundreds of thousands of contract workers can find a way to temporarily absorb the 80,000 to 100,000 refugees that now live in Malaysia. They might benefit our economy instead of being a drag on our international image and a blight on our conscience.

To be sure, the whole Myanmar refugee issue is a complex one and requires concerted action and coordination at the regional and international level. Malaysia should not be left to shoulder this problem alone. And certainly, national reconciliation in Myanmar is urgently needed, as Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak recently pointed out.

At the end of the day, however, we have a responsibility under our own laws as well as under international humanitarian law to treat refugees with the care and compassion they deserve.

Malaysians make much about our faith in God. It is time we acted as men and women of faith. We must show mercy and compassion because we believe that God is compassionate and merciful. Our confession of faith is only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal if it is not matched by justice and compassion for these, the least of the least.

World Refugee Day has gone by without much fanfare but it is up to each and every Malaysian to give it meaning by sparing a thought for or lending a hand to help the refugees in our midst. It is up to us really if evil will triumph or not.

(c) Dennis Ignatius / The Star (Malaysia)