Moved by plight of refugees : A population in limbo

A camp in Guinea for refugees from Sierra Leone.

Image via Wikipedia

 Source_Star: A population in limbo By RASHVINJEET S.BEDI

Until things improve, something needs to be done to help refugees awaiting resettlement to third countries or until they can return to their home countries.

WHO could have predicted that the fall of Saigon would impact Malaysia?

The capture of the South Vietnamese capital (now known as Ho Chi Minh City) by the North Vietnamese Army 35 years ago marked the end of the Vietnam War and the transition of a period leading to the formal re-unification of Vietnam under communist rule.

Making do: Vietnamese boat people at the Pulau Bidong refugee camp. Access to clean water is one of the basic needs of refugees. Malaysia’s first brush with refugees was with the South Vietnamese who came to be known as the boat people.

It led to a mass exodus of South Viet­namese who feared persecution because of their sympathies for the old government.

Many escaped by boat and ended up on our east coast, brought naturally by the tides. That was Malaysia’s first brush with refugees, who came to be known as the “Vietnamese boat people”.

“Refugees are people who are forced to leave their countries to avoid persecution,” says Alan Vernon, representative of the United Nations High Com­missioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

“The fear has to be justified. You can be afraid but the fear might not be justified.”

“The absence of a legal framework makes it more difficult for refugees” ALAN VERNON, UNHCR REPRESENTATIVE

He stresses on this fact because many people do not differentiate between migrants and refugees.

Under international law, a refugee is defined as a person who, owing to a well-founded fear of being prosecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a social group or political opinion, is in a foreign land and unable to avail himself of the protection of that country.

In contrast, migrants come to Malaysia because of economic opportunities.

There are over two million foreign workers in the country now, not including illegal workers. Most hail from Indo­nesia, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Nepal, India and Vietnam.

“A migrant can choose to return; they might go back to poverty but it is not the same as facing persecution or the possibility of being killed,” says Vernon.

The UNHCR began its operations in Malaysia in 1975 with the arrival of the Vietnamese boat people and this remained its main priority until 1996, when the Comprehensive Plan of Action on Indochinese refugees was officially brought to a close.

For over two decades, the UNHCR assisted Malaysia in hosting close to 250,000 boat people before durable solutions were found for them. Over 240,000 Vietnamese refugees eventually resettled in countries like the United States, Canada, Australia, France and New Zealand while some 9,000 returned to Vietnam.

As Malaysia is not a signatory to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees or the 1967 Protocol that followed, the UNHCR is the main body protecting and assisting asylum-seekers and refugees here.

Malaysia also hosted thousands of Filipino Muslims from Mindanao during the 1970s and 1980s as well as Muslim Chams from Cambodia and Bosnians in the 1990s.

In recent years, thousands of people from Aceh, Indonesia, also sought refuge here.

These days, however, the main refugees are Myanmar nationals, mostly victims of their military junta.

As of October this year, 91,100 refugees and asylum-seekers have registered with the UNHCR. Almost 84,000 are from Myanmar, comprising the Chins, Rohingyas, Myanmar Muslims, Mon, Kachins and others.

Other refugees are from Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia. Another 10,000 people of concern to the UNHCR remain unregistered.

While in Malaysia, these refugees await resettlement to third countries or remain until the situation in their home countries improves.

Globally, there are 15 million refugees but the total number of people resettled each year is fewer than 100,000. About 7,400 refugees in Malaysia were resettled last year.

Vernon says if the situation changes in their homeland, these people will ultimately return.

“When the situation improved in Aceh (after the signing of the peace agreement following the 2004 tsunami), the Achenese returned. Home is still the best (place to go). Everyone feels the same way. Even those Viet­namese who were resettled in Western countries are interested in going back,” he adds.

But until things improve, something needs to be done.

“What we don’t want is a population in limbo. That’s the nature of refugees – they are waiting for what happens next,” he explains.

Unlike decades ago, refugees today are moving around freely with the local community. They are spread throughout the country although most are concentrated in the Klang Valley.

In the past, the common solution for the Vietnamese boat people was to house them in refugee camps.

“But camp settings are negative as people are denied freedom of movement and conditions are squalid, with sanitation and hygiene problems. The camp becomes a way of warehousing people,” says Vernon.

At the height of the refugees’ exodus from Vietnam, more than 60,000 people were living in a cramped area of not more than one sq km in Pulau Bidong (an island off Tereng­ganu).

Maintenance of refugee camps, he adds, is costly and the running of a camp can amount to more than US$50mil a year.

Vernon believes the current urban setting allows the refugees to live freely and in better conditions although there are still issues that need to be addressed.

The absence of refugee legislation, he points out, makes it difficult for these people to earn a living. Refugees can only take on odd jobs and because there are no contracts involved, the tendency of them being exploited is very high.

Children are denied formal education, while health care is an expensive affair for refugees. Then, there are also the issues of arrests and detention.

“The absence of a legal framework makes it more difficult for refugees,” says Vernon. The UNHCR is urging host governments to put in place refugee laws and sign the refugee convention.

So far, 147 countries have signed the convention, with only Timor Leste, the Philip­pines and Cambodia being parties to the convention in Asean.

Vernon believes that many governments are reluctant to set conditions in place, believing this might attract more people to the country.

“Refugees are a global problem and governments have to work together on the issue and share out the burden.”

Vernon feels that Malaysia has done well so far, with help from civil society and non-governmental organisations.

From his personal experience, Malaysians want to help out once they understand the plight of the refugees.

“It could happen to anybody if things go out of control in a country,” he reminds.

Source_Star: Moved by plight of refugees

IN her line of work, Zakiah Aris (pic) comes across many depressing stories. But none is more disconcerting to her than the accounts of people who lost everything in the blink of an eye.

A senior resettlement assistant with the UNHCR, Zakiah deals with refugees.

“I feel a lot more for people who had it all (and lost). It’s not easy to adapt if you have lost everything. Some people move on, but at the end of the day, they are brave to go through the challenges,” she relates.

Zakiah still remembers vividly an elderly Vietnamese professor among the refugees at the Vietnamese refugee camp in Pulau Bidong, Terengganu. The professor who spoke fluent French held a high position in Vietnam but was forced to flee for fear of persecution.

“Just imagine if your parents had to go through the same traumatic experience,” she says.

Zakiah, 48, has been working with UNHCR for 22 years, starting at the camp in Pulau Bidong, in 1988. When the Pulau Bidong camp was closed in 1991, she worked at the Sungai Besi refugee camp.

Zakiah remembers an incident where staff of the UNHCR had to be evacuated from the island because the refugees were protesting the visit of a Vietnamese official to Malaysia. They were burning effigies and blocking access to the jetty.

She remembers Pulau Bidong as a beautiful and hilly island and that the refugee camp had a kampung-like setting.

In those days, refugees would arrive at the island day and night and the Malaysian Red Crescent Society (MRCS) had to continuously build makeshift camps while waiting for materials to arrive from the mainland.

The refugees, she recalls, lived in cramped longhouses with sewage pipes hanging above. Rats were common and sanitation was always an issue.

Those interested in volunteering for UNHCR can contact 03-2141 1322 or e-mail info


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2 Responses to “Moved by plight of refugees : A population in limbo”

  1. lam kuei yin Says:

    are there any vietnamese refugees in Penang, Malaysia where I live? Is there an UNHCR centre here in Penang where I can get more info on how to get involved etc? Thank u for the good work u do. God bless u

    • drkokogyi Says:

      I am not sure but believe that UNHCR HQ is in KL only. I think they are no more accepting Vietnamese refugees.

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