Refugees continue to face uncertain future in our region

This article first appeared in The Australian newspaper on World refugee day 20.06.2012. This is the slightly longer, unedited version.

World refugee day yearly draws attention to the plight of over 40 million people who are either refugees, internally displaced or seeking asylum and the 800,000, who are newly displaced across borders in 2011. This global population almost twice the size of Australia’s population demands more efforts to support them.

Globally the main source countries of refugees and asylum seekers are Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia, together accounting for over 5 million according to the just released UNHCR Global Trends Report 2011. Regionally Myanmar/Burma remains the largest issue with hundreds of thousands residing in regional neighbouring countries such as Thailand, Bangladesh, India and Malaysia.

Australia has been a major resettlement country for our regional neighbours for a long time, perhaps most visibly starting with the resettlement of Vietnamese refugees n the 1980s. However, the current yearly scheduled intake of around 13,750 refugees (2010-2011 figures are 13,799) is paltry compared to most other Western industrialised nations. Alone UNHCR resettlement figures show Australia doing its bit with over 9,200 places in 2011 mainly from regional UNHCR offices.

The Bali Process and other regional instruments have hitherto been mainly deployed to shore up Australian efforts to keep asylum seekers and irregular migrants at bay, i.e. trapped within the borders of our neighbours. Yet, a regional solution to what amounts to a regional refugee crisis is paramount.

Such a regional solution will invariably involve sharing the burden of our neighbours and not just the financial burdens. This will involve increasing the yearly intake for resettlement from the region, particularly Malaysia, in exchange for tighter and more coordinated border security efforts with especially Indonesia.

Even though the ‘swap deal’ with Malaysia did not come to fruition, the attention it has cast upon the situation for refugees and asylum seekers there has to be maintained. Malaysia is home to an ever-increasing population of forcibly displaced people, most are from Myanmar/Burma. Aung San Suu Kyi has aptly warned of too much optimism about the political situation in her home and Australia’s move to lift its sanctions regime is unduly rewarding the Myanmar government for minor reform steps.

Thousands continue to flee ethnic and religious tensions, suppression, forced labour and a myriad of other human rights abuses by the Burmese military and a systematic process of marginalization of ethnic groups, especially Christian groups such as the Chin, Kachin and Karen peoples.

Many of them come to Malaysia via Thailand to seek protection. However, The Search: Protection Space in Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, The Philippines and Cambodia in Practice, a report released by the Jesuit Refugee Services Asia-Pacific shows that protection spaces in Southeast Asia are insufficient, forcing many to keep moving in search for more adequate and safer refuge.

Malaysia now houses one of the largest urban refugee populations in the region. Some figures place as many as 60,000 in the sprawling city of Kuala Lumpur alone. Many Myanmar minority ethnic groups such as the Chin, a Christian group from Chin state in Northwest Myanmar/Burma, are waiting patiently to be registered by the UNHCR in Kuala Lumpur. This is the most pressing issue for asylum seekers in Malaysia and the region, as the UNHCR card they receive will give them some recognition and protection from the police and immigration officials.

Registration was suspended in early 2010 and funds are urgently needed for the UNHCR and its community partners to resume the mammoth task of registering tens of thousands of asylum seekers in Malaysia alone. Registration is just a first step, but an indispensible one, for it gives refugees recognition and freedom of movement. Those without cards risk arrest and detention, some do not leave the house out of fear.

Once they are registered they have another long wait ahead of them for resettlement to a third country, mostly the United States of America, some European countries and Australia. While some can achieve this transition and resettlement within three years, many have waited a lot longer. Some have been in Malaysia for over ten years. In this time they have to hold down jobs to survive, some have married and started families – all long for a future in which they can take their destiny in their own hands.

In the current limbo they inhabit they face exploitation, harassment and the challenges of everyday life in a country that does not want them and barely tolerates their existence. Yet, things used to be even worse. Detention, whipping for immigration offences and raids by immigration officials have all decreased and there is a cautionary sense of calm amongst some refugee communities.

A critical US report on its human rights situation and the ‘Australia-Malaysia swap deal’ caused the Malaysian government to reconsider its treatment of refugees and asylum seekers. With concerted Australian support and pressure on the Malaysian government and funding of strategic partners such as the UNHCR and community and civil society partners asylum seekers can get better protection. Now is the time to build on the positive improvements and keep the attention and resources focused on those who need it most – refugees and asylum seekers in our region.

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