Whither the Rohingya challenge?

08 Jan 2019 / 20:46 H.

THERE were some 81,764 Rohingya refugees in Malaysia as of November 2018, up from 52,569 in 2015 when the “violence” in Rakhine State was at its peak.

Humanitarian Lab 2.0 organised by Mercy Malaysia last week was revealing. The Lab hosted by International Islamic University Malaysia was held in collaboration with the Asean Rohingya Centre. It attracted more than 200 participants consisting government officers, researchers, Rohingya activists and groups.

The Lab coincided with the 20th anniversary of Mercy Malaysia to advance the organisation forward to the next level in addressing and finding pressing solutions relating to refugees and displaced communities in Malaysia, focusing on the Rohingyas in particular.

Reportedly since August 2017, targeted violence against Rohingya communities in Rakhine State, Myanmar, has forced 671,000 people, mostly women and children, to flee their homes.

This exodus has become one of the fastest growing refugee crises in the world. As such some have referred to the Rohingya as “forcibly displaced Myanmar nationals” given the present context.

The UN system refers to them as “refugees”, in line with the applicable international framework for protection and solutions, and the resulting accountabilities for the country of origin and asylum as well as the international community as a whole.

In support of these efforts, the humanitarian community has rapidly scaled up its operations, for example, in places like the Cox’s Bazar where the influx continues to increase steadily. Refugees arrive in flimsy boats or by foot often after walking for days and experiencing gender-based violence, and other human rights violations.

Not surprisingly many have lost family members in their villages or along the way, and are deeply traumatised having to endure “attacks on their cultural identity and legal nationality for decades and have been denied access to basic human rights such as education, healthcare or food.”

Forced into statelessness, even their freedom of movement within their country of origin has been severely restricted.

The UN has likened the overall situation to that of “ethnic cleansing” implicating members of the Myanmar military and some “extremist” groups. Aug 25 has been designated as Rohingya Genocide Remembrance Day.

With this in mind, it is at Cox’s Bazar that Malaysia through the Malaysian Field Hospital (MFH) is said to be most prominent and inclusive in providing services to refugees and locals.

During the Lab various initiatives and partnerships with other non-governmental organisations such as Malaysian Relief Agency and the Islamic Medical Association Malaysia’s Response and Relief Team were illustrative.

To date, more than 37,000 patients have been treated at the field hospital and about 1,000 operations have been performed.

The laparoscopic surgery set which was taken there by the Malaysian Armed Forces is said to be the only such mobile facility available in Bangladesh.

Of late, new cabins have been set up to accommodate an outpatient clinic, laboratory, X-ray room, surgery rooms, dispensary and new storerooms.

It is with this as the background that Lab 1.0 was first undertaken in 2017 to better understand the main problems faced by such communities in Malaysia which relates to issues of documentation, education and health-care.

These are the over-arching issues that tend to overshadow other sub-issues like employment, livelihood and family matters, according to Datuk Dr Ahmad Faizal Perdaus, president of Mercy Malaysia.

Underlying this is the “absence of a legal framework to guide stakeholders in Malaysia” attempting to relieve the situation.

Otherwise, it can exacerbate the issue leading to “uncoordinated response, follow-up and evaluations by stakeholders such as the government, advocates, well-wishers and NGOs.”

This is where Humanitarian Lab 2:0 becomes vital in developing further “new” and “relevant” strategies to incubate as well as create innovative ideas and policies that could facilitate the protection and integration of refugees in Malaysia.

In this context the Myanmar government has been reminded yet again to uphold its responsibility to its Rohingya community allaying them from being “oppressed and reduced into becoming refugees worldwide”.

This was relayed by Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail who emphasised that it is “not right that neighbouring countries such as Malaysia are saddled with the responsibility to care for the Rohingyas.”

She said Malaysia is firm in its stand that Myanmar must allow the Rohingyas to return to their homeland in peace.

They are after all the people of Myanmar who have been denied citizenship despite the country being pressured by the international community into assuming its rightful status particularly in accepting and accommodating the community.

It is considered irresponsible of Myanmar to impose this on other countries, especially its neighbours.

The Pakatan Harapan victory in the last general election raised expectations among the more than 150,000 refugees living in this country.

The “new” government has reportedly promised to legitimise their status and protect their rights in accordance with international standards.

As indicated earlier, without access to legal status, safe and lawful employment, and formal education, they are vulnerable to “arbitrary” arrest and detention, exploitation and abuse.

The previous government had adopted some “ad hoc policies in favour of certain groups of refugees” without a clear roadmap for the future, assuming a mere role as temporary host.

In contrast, however, the new coalition promises to ratify the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees and its 1967 Protocol, as well as its commitment to address the Rohingya crisis and transnational human trafficking.

With this optimist note the Humanitarian Lab 2.0 takes the issue one step closer to a viable solution.

With some four decades of experience in education, the writer believes that “another world is possible”. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com

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