[By Kyle Iman]
Beneath the shadow of the gleaming Petronas Twin Towers, a b-boy dance competition takes place. Hundreds of youngsters have come together to a popular nightclub, today being rented out for one purpose: to express themselves through physics-defying feats of dexterity, agility, and flexibility. There is barely any room to maneuver save for a tiny circle in the middle of the noisy crowd, where dancers battle it out for first place. A small group of teens are in the audience; their excited squeals and ‘wows’ mask a tainted childhood full of suffering, sadness, and loss. These are the Burmese refugee children of Everyone Has Hope, a non-governmental organisation which cares for and champions the rights of refugees in Malaysia.
One of these teens, Mark, is especially enjoying his new life in Malaysia. Mark, like any other kid his age, has favourite pastimes: football, playing musical instruments and singing. “Mostly guitar and drums,” says Mark, clearly very fond of his talents. “Drums, I learnt from somewhere, and guitar and piano I learnt myself.” Susan is especially fond of the K-Pop culture and speaks the language regularly with her friends Batti and Emily, also members of Everyone Has Hope. They are regular teenagers with regular interests, save for one major difference: they do not have any rights to education, healthcare, or employment in their adopted country.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are an estimated 149,027 refugees in Malaysia. 137,788 of them are Burmese, and 31,916 are under the age of 18. Most of them are refugees running from war, political strife, and squalid living conditions plaguing their homelands. Refugees are legally protected under the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, a UN document guaranteeing the right of persons to seek asylum from persecution in another country. Malaysia, however, has not ratified it. This means that under Malaysian law, there is no distinction between a refugee and an illegal immigrant. If any refugee is caught by local authorities without proper documentation, he or she will be deported, most likely to their doom.
“To understand the refugee situation, we need to understand two main things,” says Daniel Layng, Taylor’s College Canadian Pre-University humanities lecturer and lead coordinator of Everyone Has Hope, “We need to understand the official responsibility to human beings under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention on the Status of Refugees, and on the other angle we need to understand this issue in the context of the economics of refugee policy. If we look at Malaysia’s unwillingness to sign the Convention, we need to analyse why. They’re not not signing it because they hate refugees or because the individuals in government hate people or don’t want to take care of people, it’s because they are unable to take care of them. The answer is that they do not have the institutions, nor the capital, nor the money set up to be able to deliver on this service. There should be no confusion; delivering on human rights costs money.”
Layng points out that “Malaysia does have state-owned industries and whatnot, but there is still a very much neo-liberal mentality of not taxing people, of the government not taking the responsibility to acquire collective wealth and then redistribute it in social programs to lift all boats. Now, I’m not saying that they don’t do this at all, because they do. But there are limited resources. The Malaysian government know they can’t deliver, so they’re not going to sign on to a document that will make them the subject of international ridicule, because they will have to commit to it, ratify it and whatnot.” He also cites an inherent protectionist mentality among locals that makes them reluctant to help outsiders: “In the backrooms they’re saying ‘We can’t do this, we can’t even deliver full rights to our own citizens, let alone [refugees]. So by signing on to this and diverting wealth away from that, what is it going to do to the poor base of Bumiputera or Orang Asli or other Malaysian citizens that are the base of voting for the current administration?”
When asked about potential solutions to the issue, Layng is cautiously optimistic at the same time. “Why are we relying on charity to take care of human beings? It’s a little demoralising. We should rely on the institutions that are legally bound to do this, and that’s our national government. Unless we change the systemic causes of why human rights are not being met consistently in a lot of places around the world, then we are going to continue to rely on band-aid solutions,” says an animated Layng. “If Malaysia does not restructure its economy so that it has more capability to deliver on human rights, then the system is going to perpetuate itself. Governments are the only institutions legally designed to deal with these problems, and we’re dismantling them by stripping them of wealth by saying ‘no you can’t raise taxes’, ‘big governments = bad’. Well what are you going to get? You’re going to get nations and states that have a fundamental inability to deliver on human rights. And we’re going to rely on cheap charity and struggling NGOs to do it for us.”
Everyone Has Hope operates under the hashtag ‘#RecognizeThem’, with the goal of having these refugees recognised as actual refugees under international law and not simply the ‘illegal immigrants’ that the Malaysian government has made them out to be. However, until then, children like Mark, Batti, Emily and Susan will continue to live in limbo; nameless, stateless, and helpless.
Unabridged version of the article printed in ETC. Magazine’s print issue 2.