Refugee kids deserve empathy, not condemnation

Josh Hong

Rather than deny refugees and asylum seekers the right to jobs, it is far more practical for the Malaysian government to allow them to work so that they can take care of themselves. – The Malaysian Insight file pic, January 17, 2022.

RECENTLY, a group of Rohingya refugee children begging in the streets of Malaysia caught the attention of the public after videos of them doing so went viral. Many Malaysians called on the authorities to take stern action against the street urchins who were “ungrateful” for our compassion and generosity.

What compassion and generosity these people had in mind is anyone’s guess, for Malaysia is not signatory to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and is under no obligation to provide any assistance to those who have fled their home countries to seek asylum via the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office in Kuala Lumpur.

Nor is there a legal framework to protect the asylum seekers from harm and grant them access to employment, healthcare and education.

Refugees and asylum-seekers, despite being under the protection of UNHCR, are considered “illegal immigrants” under Malaysian law and subject to arrest, detention and deportation.

There is a wealth of information on what kind of treatment they have received in Malaysia, ranging from police harassment and exploitation to xenophobia.

A case in point is the racist and virulent sentiments against undocumented populations in our midst at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic in early 2020.

Pengerang MP Azalina Othman was spot-on when she tweeted that the Rohingya children should not be blamed for begging as Malaysia has failed to protect them.

However, as a lawmaker and special adviser to the prime minister, she should go a step further to propose in Parliament a legal framework under which refugees and asylum seekers could be better protected on Malaysian soil, otherwise she risks being perceived as paying mere lip service to humanitarian principles.

I am being practical here. What refugees and asylum seekers need right now is not citizenship as many Malaysians fear, but simply the right to jobs, healthcare and education.

The government has the discretion to determine whether it is in the interest of the country to eventually ratify the refugee convention. However, indecision will only prolong the plight of the refugees and asylums who are here and worsen the xenophobic sentiment already entrenched in Malaysian society.

It would be better for the government to allow the refugees and asylum seekers to work legally so that they can take care of themselves.

Simply put, giving refugees and asylum seekers the right to work would be beneficial for all parties. Since they do not receive any material assistance from either the Malaysian government or UNHCR (contrary to popular belief), being able to work will ensure that they can stand on their own two feet and, more importantly, avoid falling victim to crime syndicates.

The Malaysian Employers Federation, for one, has long advocated for refugees’ right to work. Given that Malaysia is highly dependent on migrant workers anyway, why not let refugees and asylum seekers be gainfully employed?

Coming back to the viral video. The crucial question is, how did these children end up begging in the streets, not which race, religion or nationality are they. We would ask why weren’t they in school but out in the streets if they had been our kids, wouldn’t we?

Isn’t it ironic that Malaysians are quick to demonstrate their love and care for stray cats and dogs, but the empathy is denied to fellow human beings of a different nationality, and young ones at that?

Human life transcends social status and national boundaries. Put ourselves in their shoes: wouldn’t we hope for something to be done if it was our own children who were begging in a foreign land?

Rohingya children were loitering on the streets and even behaving aggressively to others mainly because their parents were denied citizenship in Myanmar and persecuted by successive military regimes. They were hence forced to flee their country of birth.

In Malaysia, they continue to be treated as pariahs and are not permitted to work, at least not legally.

Their lack of education and knowledge in regard to family planning, coupled with conservative religious beliefs, has also resulted in them producing more children than they could afford, as a result of which many of them are forced to beg on the streets. just to help the family make ends meet.

It is a pathetic situation that also exposes the vulnerable kids to exploitation by criminal syndicates. It is an easy way out for people who enjoy no legal status and are deprived of the rights to employment, education and public healthcare.

Although Malaysia ratified the Convention of the Rights of the Child nearly three decades ago in 1995, it continues to maintain reservations on several important points, such as article 2 on non-discrimination on account of the child’s or his/her parent’s or legal guardian’s race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national, ethnic or social origin, property, disability, birth or other status;  article 28 on the right to compulsory primary education; and article 37 on the right to be free from torture and deprivation of liberty.

More than a quarter century later and after changes of government including to Pakatan Harapan, which was allegedly “democratic and liberal”, why is Malaysia continuing to deny children their basic rights irrespective of nationality and legal status?

There are at least tens of thousands of refugees or stateless children who roam our streets because they are unable to access formal education, especially in Sabah, where many having fallen prey to criminal organisations.

These innocent children are nothing but victims of state failure, whose need for education can no longer be ignored.

Let’s not allow our short-sightedness and xenophobia to get the better of us by refusing refugees, asylum seekers and stateless people the right to employment and education.

If we continue to deprive them of the opportunity to contribute to our society, we may end up paying a heavy price for our selfishness and unkindness, for they may be beggars today but perpetrators of far more heinous crimes in the not-too-distant future. – January 17, 2022.

* Josh Hong is a keen watcher of domestic and international politics, who longs for the day when Malaysians master the art of self-mockery. He has spent the last 15 years trying to win his feline friends’ favour as he considers it an endeavour more worthwhile than trusting politicians, aspiring also to be a tea and coffee connoisseur.

* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight. Article may be edited for brevity and clarity.

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