• Malaysian refugees: the reality behind the so-called solution

    Posted by John

    20 May, 2011

    Last week our government announced a new refugee deal with the Malaysian government. It wasn't by design that just two days later I found myself spending the day with a group of Chin refugees in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I had planned to visit this community weeks before. As it turned out, my timing was perfect.

    The Chin are a people group in Burma, majority Christian, who face significant religious and cultural persecution. They are treated like aliens in their own land, living in fear of violence, forced labour and in some cases even death. As a result, many of them resort to doing business with the people smugglers that we hear so much about in our nation, so that they can make their way into either India or Malaysia, with the hope of registering with the UNHCR and hopefully being resettled to a third country. Two or three years after fleeing their own land, some of the fortunate ones end up as resettled refugees on our shores and living in our cities. Some remain in limbo for many more years than that.

    The story is not that alarming, until you start to dig into the reality of what those years waiting in limbo look like as these people wait to be resettled. The Malaysian government is not a signatory to the United Nations refugee convention. They do not recognise the Chin as refugees, instead choosing to label them illegal immigrants. The result is that these refugees have no identity, no access to work, education or health care. In the eyes of the institutions of our world, they are nobody!

    They float in society. If they manage, after a number of months, to get accepted by the UNHCR office as having a legitimate claim to refugee status, then they have some access to justice structures. Until that time, they live in constant fear of being picked up by vigilante volunteer immigration officers. Many then get passed into the hands of people smugglers, dropped at the Thai border, then sold into the sex industry or slavery. Once they disappear across the border the reality that they have no official identity means that nobody comes looking for them.

    I've met a lot of very poor people in my time, but not many that face this kind of mass injustice. I've not met many who are well educated yet still have almost no control over their own destiny or freedom.

    As I got to know one of the men, I got my phone out and showed him a photo of my one-year-old daughter. I proceeded to tell him how I was missing her terribly after a week away from home. Later that day, I was told that man and his wife had two children aged two and four back in Burma who they had not seen in 18 months. They had fled their home in fear of persecution having made the choice to leave their family behind in the hope that they might one day be able to provide a peaceful life for them.

    It's striking how this one moment (where I shoved my foot deeply into my mouth) highlighted just how different our lives are! I doubt whether I will ever have to choose to leave my family because I fear death. If I ever went missing at the Thai border my family, lawyer friends and the resources of a whole nation would come to find me. This is poverty in its most evil form. This is poverty that requires a voice for a solution.

    As I reflect on my day in Kuala Lumpur and on the deal we have made with Malaysia, I'm led to believe that the situation for other refugees in Malaysia may not be quite so dire. Even if that is the case, being at the back of the queue means a potential 3 years or more of floating in Malaysian society with little or no rights.

    There are not any easy answers to the situation with asylum seekers in our nation, but because of my experience I need to ask myself the question - 'Should we be sending people into this situation?' I hope the government has thought through that question and can give a valid answer.

    I'm no expert on this stuff. What do you think?

    One thing my day in Kuala Lumpur has taught me is that behind each human piece that we move around an international chess board from our positions of privilege and power is a real person with a real family and a real story. Ms Gillard, Mr Bowen, Mr Abbott and Mr Morrison...and me....and you...each need to make sure that we treat each of them with the dignity they deserve - even as we pursue justice and fairness.


    John Beckett (known to most of us as JB) is the National Coordinator of Micah Challenge Australia.

    JB desires to see more and more Christians taking on justice, mercy and humility as a way of life and speaking, praying and acting for and with the global poor.