Put a halt to the misery of refugees now

Josh Hong

While the cabinet talks about improving living conditions for refugees, the Home Ministry continues to treat them as a threat to national security. – The Malaysian Insight file pic, August 8, 2022.

IT was reported early this week that a Chin refugee from Myanmar tossed his three children off an elevated highway before jumping himself.

The man, his daughter and son were found dead at the scene, while another boy survived and is currently being treated in the intensive care unit of a nearby hospital.

This tragic incident illustrates clearly how years of anxieties and hopelessness, coupled with fear of the authorities in Malaysia have taken their toll on the mental health of the vulnerable refugee communities, prompting human rights groups to call for the government to create a more humane environment so that refugees can live in safety and with dignity.

I must add also that the lack of understanding and empathy, along with rising xenophobia, within Malaysian society is equally responsible for the heightened sense of vulnerability of the undocumented population.

There is no doubt that the devastating impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on nations and individuals has brought about increased feelings of threat and competition, greater uncertainty and sense of helplessness, all of which are in turn reflected in xenophobia and anti-immigrant attitudes worldwide. Malaysia is no exception.

Refugees – unlike voluntary migration, which is carried out after careful consideration and with well-thought-out plans – flee their homes as a last resort, often out of desperation following wars arising from ethnic, religious or political conflicts, or other forms of persecution.

Take Myanmar, for instance. The military coup of February 2021 was followed by brutal crackdowns on the popular uprisings across the country, especially in the ethnic minority areas such as Rakhine, Kachin and Chin states, causing up to 200,000 Myanmar nationals to be internally displaced, or forced to cross the borders into Bangladesh, Thailand and even all the way to Malaysia.

Many were also made to witness atrocious crimes committed by soldiers during the flight, and the pain of being forcibly separated from the loved ones whom they may never see again will likely result in long-term emotional and psychological trauma.

Once in the country of asylum, their psychological problems could be aggravated by the discrimination, fear, and despondency that they experience on a daily basis.

According to a survey by Médecins Sans Frontières, between April and August 2021, 64% of new patients admitted to its health team in Samos, Greece, had suicidal thoughts. More worryingly, up to 14% had actually attempted suicide. It is a global phenomenon.

In Malaysia, refugees are denied the rights to employment and education, and have to pay for public healthcare, albeit at a 50% discount on the standard fee for foreign nationals.

Even then, Ministry of Health Circular 10/2001 makes it compulsory for healthcare workers to report to the authorities undocumented persons seeking medical help. A climate of fear for sure.

Not to mention the terribly inadequate mental health assistance and counselling for refugees and asylum seekers.

Their dire situation is further compounded by the heartless and callous remarks of Home Minister Hamzah Zainudin, who has shown not one iota of humanity towards the undocumented population, but regularly threatens them with arrest and detention.

Shockingly, the South China Morning Post once reported that, as of February 2021, a total of 24 refugees and migrant workers had for various reasons committed suicide since the outbreak of the Covid-19.

Then again, why should we be surprised if we know how refugee and migrant communities have been subjected to stigmatisation by the media and Malaysian society at large?

You only have to look at the avalanche of fake news against migrants at the outset of the Covid-19 pandemic, as false information spread online like wildfire, claiming refugees and asylum-seekers to be a source of the virus and how they were “taking advantage of” our healthcare system.

As always, efforts to combat rumours and misinformation with truths are mostly an exercise in futility, as people’s prejudices are reinforced by news that suits their taste and conforms to their (mis)perceptions, precisely the reason why the media relishes in reporting prominently crimes committed by migrants or refugees, while the fact that many of them are themselves victims of crime is by and large overlooked.

This week’s tragedy is a wake-up call to Malaysia’s chaotic refugee policy and social exclusion.

Although the cabinet special committee on the Protection of Vulnerable Groups recently agreed to formulate a blueprint that includes refugee groups, so far it has done nothing to stop the Home Ministry from continuing to handle the refugee issue from the perspective of national security.

To prevent more similar tragedies from happening, the government must first put a halt to raids and arrests of refugees and asylum-seekers, and instead grant them the rights to employment, education and medical care, including access to mental health assistance, failing which the announcement will just be another lip service that provides no solution to their misery. – August 8, 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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