ON On July 11, 1995, more than 7,000 Bosnian Muslims were massacred by Serb forces in what was the worst episode of genocide since World War II. The senseless murder finally prompted Western countries to push for a ceasefire after three years of war in Bosnia. The damage was done, however, as the United Nations and the international community failed to act in time to prevent the massacre.
27 years later, and the effects of the atrocity are still being felt.
The same decade saw Malaysia, collectively with many other countries, actively assimilating Bosnian refugees into our communities, providing them with the protection and educational opportunities they so desperately needed.
Not all of them were refugees. Many were looking for a new life, like Datuk Amer Bukvic, a former youth leader and now Managing Director, Global Practice and Partnerships Directorate at the Islamic Development Bank (IsDB). The son of an acting ambassador, Datuk Amer came to Malaysia in search of educational opportunities, having arrived before the war. A physically imposing figure standing over six feet tall, he now serves the needs of 57 nations within the IDB Group, providing policy solutions to countries in crisis and refugees.
Our country has provided the platform and created an environment for many to thrive. Those who sought help received it, those who desired opportunity found it in abundance. They say the past teaches the future; however, our past experience with Bosnian refugees contrasts sharply with our actions today.
Malaysia is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1961 Protocol. As such, under existing laws, there is no distinction between refugees and economic immigrants without legal documents.
This leaves those who have arrived safely (after enduring a dangerous journey) on our shores exposed to harsh punishment, abuse, exploitation and discrimination. Worse still, Home Office figures in October last year recorded as many as 1,400 to 1,500 refugee children in its migrant detention centers – representing up to 7.5% of the detained population.
Most face indefinite detention in grim conditions, and worse for some groups – deportation to their homelands – the very hellish torture they were fleeing from in the first place.
A recent example is the deportation of 1,086 identified Burmese citizens repatriated to Myanmar via three navy ships sent by the junta.
This was done despite an order from the Kuala Lumpur High Court granting a stay to hear an application by rights groups for a judicial review to stay the eviction.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has identified at least 6 of the deportees as registered refugees with them. Admittedly, UNHCR has not been allowed to verify their status through interviews – but this is emblematic of Immigration’s decision to deny UNHCR access to all migrant detention centers since August 2019.
In April 2022, more than 500 Rohingyan refugees escaped from the overcrowded Sungai Bakap temporary immigration depot where they were held indefinitely. The deaths following the tragic incident were not met with full sympathy. Instead, some quarters have expressed opposing sentiments to the warm welcome extended to Bosnians just decades ago.
A report by the Indonesian Sovereign Migrant Workers Coalition 2022 revealed the horrors faced by detainees in a migrant detention camp, concluding that “they create these conditions to create terror, so when the detainees are released, they will come back.” and will say others about it.
Some cite a supposed conundrum – on the one hand, without a job, they will strain our existing welfare system. On the other hand, getting a job means breaking the law – leading to detention and possibly deportation.
Of those who choose to work, they do so without legal protection, becoming prime targets of exploitation by predatory elements and irresponsible employers.
I am advocating that we begin the process of allowing refugees to work legally, even on a case-by-case basis, and have the opportunity to be educated in Malaysia. We’ve done it before – providing opportunities for so many people, just like Datuk Amer Bukvic.
A report by IDEAS in 2019 found that granting refugees the right to work would allow them to contribute more than 3 billion Malaysian ringgits ($683 million) to the economy through higher spending by 2024. It would also mean increased tax revenue and the creation of over 4,000 jobs for Malaysians.
Malaysia is currently facing a severe shortage of unskilled foreign labour. It makes economic sense to include refugees in the labor equation.
Another concern weighing on the refugee community is the lack of access to education. Refugee and asylum-seeking children are considered illegal immigrants and therefore do not have access to our public schools.
In 2018, the then Minister of Education, Dr. Maszlee, implemented the zero rejection policy to give education to children regardless of their papers. The policy was reversed two years later, after Sheraton moved – leaving refugee children deprived of formal education opportunities beyond NGO-run schools which are severely limited in funding, numbers and accessibility.
We need not look far to decide on the right policy that is consistent with principled action. The Srebrenica massacre, 27 years later, is something we must never forget. But also, it should highlight Malaysia’s commitment to caring for vulnerable, displaced, marginalized people. We must and can do better.
Nurul Izza Anwar
Member of Parliament for Permatang Pauh