Presently in Malaysia there are an acknowledged 8,000 people from Myanmar who are stateless. A large number have applications pending with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to be classified as Refugees. Their applications are still pending action, even after waits in excess of one year. And the number is probably three times that of the known stateless people.
The present circumstances for NGOs in Malaysia, given the world and local economy, places substantial burdens upon us. We have reduced personnel and financial resources to assist them. We receive little or no cooperation from government, let alone from the well-meaning but financially pressed citizens. In point of fact, only one NGO attempts to deal with these refugee issues as their main issue. Others deal with it as a part of their mandate. But we are all responsible, as human beings and as religious and particularly Muslim peoples.
We are all aware of the fact that of the post world war unjust borders drawn by Western colonial powers, the border between Arakan and south Thailand is among the most cruelly drawn. The Rohingya Muslims of Arakan (now Rakhine) were cut off from the Malay Muslims of south Thailand, as well as the Muslims of present-day Malaysia and Bangladesh.
Placed under the political authority of Rangoon (now Yangon), capital Myanmar (formerly Burma) the Arakan region entered a long period of neglect and oppression. After many years of immense suffering, they began to take small boats to the open sea in hopes of landing somewhere as political, economic, and religious refugees. They have been refused everywhere. We cannot forget the treatment and rejection in the last two years by our neighbors Thailand and Indonesia.
No one wants them. Countries that are a majority Muslim nation do not want them, thus proving that there is no such thing as a Muslim ummah. The Rohingya are applying now for the most they can hope for, that is, the United Nations’ temporary refugee status, until other countries agree to take them in. Indonesia is said to be considering their application to land in Aceh temporarily. But these and other solutions are only temporary.
Myanmar ignores the Rohingya completly or treats them second class citizens, saying they are the problem of Bangladesh. These and other positions are untenable. The border defended by the United Nations clearly places these people as a Muslim minority in the predominantly Buddisht state of Maynmar and nowhere else. The regime is driving the Arakanese, including the Rohingya, away, forcing then to become “boat people” at the mercy of rape, robbery, and drowning or starving in the open sea. Perhaps this is why no one wants them – they are truly among the “have nots” of this world.
As were the muhajirun (Meccan refugees) who followed Prophet Muhammad (saw) to establish their city-state in Medina in the first years of the Hijrah calendar. Then there was a prophet of God to teach and protect them. Evidently, Muslims have totally lost their spirit and do not care to intervene in the tragic deaths of so many of these “boat people”. What would the prophet do now, seeing the plight of this community of Muslims?
The problems of ASEAN’s non-intervention policies are without effect; this problem is a Malaysian problem of long standing. It is also a problem of the other member ASEAN countries, but their failing to act in the interests of these people is their issue, not ours.
The way forward is, at least at the beginning stages here in Malaysia, is to establish (a) cultural orientation program; (b) skill development; (c) the establishment of an Ombudsman to act as their representative in the mediation process with the UNCHR, the Malaysian Immigration Department, and NGOs; and (d) the development of a long term plan to integrate them into our ummah. By doing these actions, we are indeed empowering the refugees and not merely addressing their short term needs.
These people have the potential to contribute, and desire to do so. We are at present forcing them into greater poverty and a live of crime which effectively produces the opposite result of being a stain upon our communities. These actions are urgently required: we do not wish to witness deaths on boats, torture of Thailand’s soil or on the open sea.
We in Malaysia can make the first steps towards human, Islamic treatment.
Azril Mohd Amin is the vice-president of ABIM and a lawyer.