The Real, Harsh Truth About Refugees
05 July 2021

MUCH has been said on the socio-economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and the never-ending lockdowns on Malaysians. While its threat to Malaysians is undisputed, the pandemic has, similarly, threatened the social and economic rights of the most vulnerable in society particularly for migrants and refugees.

Covid-19 has been particularly harsh on refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia. They are the hardest hit on multiple fronts. However, the disruptions caused by Covid-19 to the lives of refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia are not just due to the impact of the pandemic. It is also a history of neglect, mismanagement and policy flip flops, and U-turns that further exacerbate the situation.

According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), as of end May 2021, there is a total of 179,570 registered refugees in Malaysia, out of which 68% are men and 32% women.

For the record, the Malaysian government does not recognise refugees or asylum seekers. They are lumped under the broad definition of illegal immigrants with little or no legal protection even if they are registered with UNCHR.

Employment challenges

It is an open secret that most refugees and migrants work in the informal sectors of the economy, taking up jobs deemed dangerous, dirty and demeaning by locals. The majority depends on daily or weekly wages without any job protection or access to government aid.

With the implementation of various movement-control orders (MCO) over the span of nearly two years, many were made redundant when businesses were forced to close. This has caused a drastic reduction in their income with the majority not having an income at all.

Many are now highly reliant on aid from groups and well-wishers to survive. For instance, since MCO 1.0, Sentul-based Dignity for Children Foundation (Dignity) has distributed 19,596 food parcels to 3,936 families in the vicinity. Thanks to donations and contributions from individuals and corporations, Dignity is able to continue with its food distribution 18 months down the road.

However, before anyone thinks that the refugee community is passive, living off the charity of Malaysians, let it be known that they have been contributing to Malaysia’s fight against Covid-19 as a way of giving back to the country that is hosting them.

Sew X dignity, a transformational enterprise by Dignity, trains and employs migrants and refugees to produce PPEs and masks orders for front liners and corporations. This gives the communities a means to generate income during the pandemic whilst learning a life skill.

Health risks

Even before the pandemic, the living conditions of refugees and migrants were less than ideal, with hygiene and overcrowding being major concerns. The onslaught of Covid-19 means that the same two communities are deemed “high-risk.” However, contact tracing for them is not easy. Many are afraid to come forward to be screened.

This is further compounded by the government’s back pedalling of its promise not to conduct immigration operations against illegal migrants during the MCO. The large presence of security forces on the streets to help enforce the MCO further pushed these communities underground.

The result is the disproportionally high number of clusters among these communities, which in turn give rise to negative and xenophobic sentiments against them.

A recent Ipsos survey found that Malaysia’s sentiments have taken an about-turn when it comes to welcoming refugees to the country. According to Ipsos, Malaysians are strongly in favour of keeping the borders completely closed for refugees, representing a sharp shift compared to 2019, before the pandemic.

Although such sentiments spiked during the pandemic, the ugly truth is, they are not the result of the pandemic itself. If anything, they reflect pre-existing deep-seated prejudices and resentment toward such communities, and further aggravated by the misinformation and disinformation shared widely on social media platforms and messaging applications.

The long-term impact is felt not by these communities alone but nation-wide. The Malaysian government’s hard stance against illegal immigrants could worsen the country’s Covid-19 crisis as many more will go into hiding, leading to a lack of vaccination among them and the probability of more new clusters forming. This, in turn, jeopardises the goal of achieving “herd immunity”.

Until and unless we adopt a humanitarian approach to encourage migrants and refugees to come forth without fear of their rights being further violated, the country’s battle to bring down Covid-19 cases and the race to achieve herd immunity will be impeded. Punitive measures do not help contain or minimise the potential health risks faced.

Education disruption

Not unlike Malaysians, refugees and migrants too worry about the future of their children. However, in the battle between livelihood and survival versus children’s education, the former usually has the upper hand.

The universal acknowledgement that education can break the chain of poverty means that an alternative way has to be found to ensure continued education for children of migrants and refugees during these challenging times.

Left out of the formal education system, these communities are left to fend for themselves. Where their host country has failed, individual and corporate Malaysia have stepped up.

Again, groups such as Dignity, in collaboration with UNHCR, have implemented a programme called “The Community Classroom” in March 2020 with data and mobile phone packages from private telcos.

In-community leaders are trained to be educators. They are able to put their acquired qualifications, interests and abilities to good use, giving back to their communities and, at the same time, acquire a skill that will help them make a fresh start and earn a living either locally or when they get settled in a new country.

Currently, the programme has 10 teachers reaching out to over 300 students. The majority of the teachers are women.

Looking ahead

National policies and measures to flatten the curve of the pandemic need to take into consideration issues facing refugees and migrants.

Refugees in Malaysia have been here for decades and are here to stay. Covid-19 has shown us that refugees cannot be addressed under a singular security, economic, social or humanitarian lens. Any post-MCO, post-pandemic policy on refugees must include status recognition, widespread registration, health and security checks, and permission to work legally.

Until and unless the Malaysian government is willing to address the issue head on and realistically, the country may just find itself in a continued downward spiral on the humanitarian and human rights violations fronts. We cannot afford to be a pariah and be in heavy slumber when humanity is concerned – for the sake of our generation and future generations to come. – July 3, 2021.

*Liew Tong Ngan is Dignity marketing and communications head.

* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight.

Article appeared on The Malaysian Insight.

About Dignity

Our work began in 1998 in Sentul, Kuala Lumpur with only 20 students then. Dignity is now a learning centre with more than 2,300 children ranging from 2-19 years old.
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