Comment | By Wong Chun Wai

We can’t deal with an exodus of refugees

THERE has been a strong shift of opinion in Malaysia towards the Rohingya refugees since the outbreak of the pandemic, especially among the country’s Muslim majority.

If in the past, there were sympathies and support for them on Islamic solidarity grounds, all that has disappeared overnight.

The same politicians who corralled support for them have also changed their tune now.

That’s simply because they have gauged the pulse of the ordinary Muslims well. The outpouring of anger, especially on Bahasa Malaysia social media, has been fierce and loud.

A Rohingya who posted a strong message on Facebook against Malaysians, found his identity and home address immediately exposed, receiving angry retaliatory messages swiftly.

A TV station sent its crew to investigate how a group of Rohingya could have stayed in Malaysia for more than 10 years.

A video of a kopiah-clad Rohingya has also gone viral. In it, a trader selling books on Islam was challenged to recite Islamic prayers by a Malaysian but he could not.

It’s estimated there are more than 100,000 Rohingya in Malaysia. Incredibly, they are regarded the largest stateless population on earth.

In 2016, Datuk Seri Najib Razak led a gathering of Muslim leaders to show support for the Rohingya, but last week, the former prime minister backed the authorities for turning back about 200 Rohingya refugees trying to land on Malaysian shores recently.

The incident has drawn criticism from human rights groups and individuals, but Najib understands the sentiments of many Malaysians, who feel the government needs to prioritise the health, security and livelihoods of Malaysians first and foremost.

Unfortunately, most Malaysians feel the Rohingya have become a burden to the country.

Najib took the issue further when he said they had taken advantage of Malaysia’s generosity.

In declaring Malaysia’s acts of kindness for them, he said: “Sudah diberikan betis, nak peha pulak,” a Malay proverb equating to, ”Give them an inch and they take a yard,” in English.

”We are not cruel, but until when do we need to resolve this problem which began in the 1990s?”

His remarks, expectedly, have drawn the knives from his political nemeses, but Najib understands the grassroots Malay psyche well.

Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad has spoken up about the plight of the Rohingya, and at the United Nations last year, he criticised the UN and Myanmar government for their inaction in resolving the Rohingya crisis.

Myanmar’s military has been accused of slaying thousands of Rohingya in western Rakhine state since 2017, resulting in the mass exodus of this Muslim minority group to neighbouring countries, which led to the world’s largest refugee camp at Cox Bazar in Bangladesh.

But Malaysia has been turning away Rohingya refugees since 2015, when they started turning up here and in Indonesia. This isn’t news.

As their numbers grew exponentially, Malaysia and Indonesia decided on May 20, 2015 to provide temporary shelter for more than 3,000 of the refugees who landed on their shores.

But after the UN appealed to the two nations to take in more, Malaysia and Indonesia agreed to shelter 7,000 of them.

Malaysia made it clear that the international community had to play its part in dealing with the crisis, but somehow we ended up cradling the baby.

Despite our help, then-UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein still criticised Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand for turning the refugees away.

The general sentiment among Malaysians is that we have far too many immigrant workers. Official registered foreign workers were estimated at a hair under two million in 2019, while other reports claimed that unofficial estimates showed up to six million of them, or 18.6% of the country’s 32.6 million population.

As of end February 2020, there are some 178,990 refugees and asylum seekers registered with UNHCR in Malaysia.

Some 154,080 are from Myanmar, comprising 101,010 Rohingya, 22,810 Chin, and 30,250 others.

According to the UNHCR website, there are about 24,900 refugees and asylum seekers from other countries, including 6,660 Pakistanis, 3,680 Yemenis, 3,290 Somalis, 3,290 Syrians, 2,590 Afghans, 1,830 Sri Lankans, 1,270 Iraqis, 790 Palestinians, and the remainder from miscellaneous countries.

Let’s be realistic. We have little choice but to turn away refugees because once we accept them, word will spread at the camps, and soon, we’ll have a massive influx on our hands.

Malaysia just can’t afford to cope anymore, and neither can Thailand nor Indonesia.

No European, Arab or Asean countries have come to Malaysia to embrace the Rohingya and offer them passports.

How long can we house them, and how many more of them do we want landing on our shores?

If our borders are shut, as per the movement control order, it doesn’t make sense that our shores are gateways for refugees. We are grappling with a pandemic that has infected over 5,800 Malaysians and killed 100. The last thing we need is a new wave of Covid-19, with new clusters formed.

No one should condone racist attacks of any form against minorities or the less fortunate, and those who speak up for refugees.

But we should be aware that unrestricted acceptance of these refugees is certainly not a viable and sustainable solution to the Rohingya issue.

Malaysians have become poorer, and we simply can’t afford to have thousands of refugees turning up here, vulnerable as they may be.

Lest we forget, Malaysia is not a signatory to the UN convention on refugees and migrant rights because we already have our hands full dealing with this mass of humanity.