On March 31 a five-year-old boy wandered out of his parents’ sight during a shopping trip to a mall in Kuala Lumpur. The story immediately made its way into the mainstream media, which began publicising the parents’ desperate plea to anyone to return their missing child. Most had little hope of finding the boy, at least not alive.
Two weeks later, Malaysians woke up to the good news of the child’s return to his family. The only difference is that the child was now cleanly shaven. He had been looked after by a Burmese refugee couple, who said that they had found the boy trying to cross the street near the mall where he disappeared. Bringing him back to a slum somewhere in the centre of the city, the couple relate the story of how the child adjusted himself to his new ‘family’ without any problem. They then claimed he was taken to a doctor, and his head was shaved because of chickenpox, a claim which doctors later discovered to be false. The couple also claimed not to know anything about a missing child despite the intense media campaign, saying they did not have television or radio in their small hut. For the next few days the couple were in police custody, under the suspicion that they had abducted the child in order to make him beg on the streets.
Living in a filthy slum, without television or radio, is a reality of migrant life in modern Malaysia. The Burmese couple, whatever their intention was in taking the child home without going to the police to report having found a missing child, are a typical example of how migrant workers, refugees and asylum-seekers, be they ‘legal’ or ‘illegal’, live in Malaysia, a country which prides itself as ‘developed’. Although there are thousands of Burmese refugees in Malaysia, this is the first time that their ghetto in the heart of Malaysia’s most developed city has been brought to the public’s attention, albeit indirectly. Their miserable life, especially those who haunt the city’s streets armed only with a paper issued by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, is hidden from Kuala Lumpur’s alluring skyscrapers and those who use them.
Since the government’s promise two years ago to look into the problems of the Rohingya refugees who crossed the border into Malaysia in their thousands, very little – nay, nothing – has changed. Thousands of Burma’s Rohingya minority, instead of being absorbed into a workforce that demands hundreds of thousands of able-bodied workers, have to roam the streets, living in slums hidden from tourists and the Malaysian public. Their children do not go to school, thanks to the Malaysian government’s insistence that these children do not have as much right as Malaysia’s citizens to get an education in the country’s public schools.
The result of all this is that Burmese refugees, both documented (by a UNHCR document that is not recognised by the government) and undocumented, live a life of crime and poverty, constituting a time-bomb that can detonate at any time. They cannot be legally employed, so most of them are forced to take jobs that even other immigrant workers refuse to do, for pay that is not enough to buy their families daily meals. As a result, Burmese refugees live in squalid conditions in the cities and surrounding wastelands. Their children are unable to attend schools and many are trained to become street-beggars. Like other destitute communities, these refugees are vulnerable to social ills and get involved in crime, their youngsters degenerating and being corrupted by their abuse by the day.
Some groups of refugees are educated through the efforts of Christian missionaries from abroad. The fact that not even one organisation in Malaysia dealing with refugees’ and migrants’ rights is run by Muslims or an Islamic organisation is a symptom of the widespread indifference and lack of compassion in the Muslim world. Yet the Prophet of Islam (saw) was a refugee from persecution, and the first group of Muslims had to become immigrants.
A recent report by Medecins San Frontieres (MSF) has found that refugees in Malaysia live in constant fear, unable to access basic services, including healthcare, because of the climate of insecurity. The report also confirms many other damning indictments of Malaysia’s treatment of refugees and migrant workers, who are subjected to harassment by corrupt policemen and authorities who are empowered to arrest or detain them. This probably also explains why the couple who found the missing child did not at first report their having found him to the police.
Almost 100,000 of the more than a million undocumented immigrants (or ‘illegals’) in the country are refugees and asylum-seekers. Of these, about 40,000 are registered by the UNHCR, the majority of them Burmese who have been expelled by the junta that rules Burma. “In a country like Malaysia, where living standards are so high, it is astonishing to see the inhuman conditions in which many undocumented migrants live,” says MSF’s report.
The story of the missing boy might open up the larger political issue, and provoke Malaysia to put its house in order as far as its treatment of other human beings goes. Thanks to the apathy of Muslims on issues involving migration and refugees (common everywhere in the Ummah and to all Muslim governments), the destitution of this section of the population is a non-issue in Muslim countries, Malaysia being no exception despite all the noise its rulers make at OIC and UN summits. Its own response to efforts by UN bodies to document these refugees, who have nowhere else to turn, is shameful.
Very unhelpful also are the xenophobic mainstream media, police, judiciary and government ministers and other politicians. Some have expressed fear of a “flood” of refugees and migrants in the country; it is interesting to note that more than half of the very people who are so worried about the influx themselves have non-indigenous ancestors two or three generations back. This is because more than half of Malaysia’s current population are the result of mass migrations from India, China and the Arab world that took place during the last three centuries.
Yet, instead of cooperating to alleviate the refugees’ suffering, Malaysia, currently in the chair of the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC), accuses the UNHCR of encouraging a “flood” of immigrants. “What we are not happy about is the current state of affairs, the difficulty, the social and economic burden we face,” says Syed Hamid Albar, Malaysia’s foreign minister, who is one of the cabinet members whose ancestors chose migration to another land in preference to other alternatives.