What will it take for Malaysia to act on its human rights vows and quit treating refugees as ‘illegal immigrants’?

Two young Somali refugees help sell products from a social enterprise, Fugeelah, that zeroes in on ethical fashion and refugee rights. Both are entrepreneurs and writers in the making but neither can eke out a living in Malaysia because of the draconian no-work rule.

These past few weeks in Malaysia as a foreign journalist opened my eyes to a novel set of dismaying challenges facing the refugee and asylum seeker (RAS) community. And it’s immeasurably exasperating.

My first day in Kuala Lumpur brought me cheek to jowl with the cause of refugee rights and the people themselves, platformed and using their voice to illuminate the injustices of the blanket expropriation of their fundamental rights to work, education and healthcare. Akin to Hong Kong’s anti-refugee legal framework and the moral panic sewn against them in society.

A great many psychosocial and political costs, however, are incurred by the Malaysian government who claim to ‘do something about’ the over 175,000 refugees. Like without a UN-issued recognition card, you and your family are virtually on the streets with no social welfare protection. The government has no obligation to provide even the basic necessities to you.

Backfiring the authorities — thanks to their lack of a cohesive body for asylum seekers — are overdue burdens that just multiply if sufficient safeguards aren’t given to the thousands of families seeking safe ground from their countries (the majority hail from Somalia, Myanmar, Yemen and Syria).

Co-signing international treaties like the Convention of the Rights of the Child and CEDAW are but a written legally binding pledge Malaysia needs to uphold. But the lingering question whittles down to whether that guarantees safekeeping for the RAS community, a quarter of whom areyoung children.

Think of it this way. You’re nearly 18 years old, on the verge of graduating from high school in no time to join a school of fashion and design. Prospects of admission are high. Then unforeseen circumstances in your town, your city, your entire nation forces you to leave with very little clothes on your back to move to any other place but here.

Years fly by in your transitional/host country where you’re told to press the restart button in your life, back-pedaling several high school grades to pick up a new language so you are eligible to chase your aspirations. This time adhering to a standard and system you are gruelingly tasked to become word-perfect in. And that is wholly dependent on clearing the primary step of obtaining access to education.

After speaking to experts, advocates and the RAS community, I noticed a consistent pattern of objections and inquiries.

Why is the Malaysian society widely dismissive of RAS rights even on the most rudimentary levels of accessibility and welfare benefits? Where are the discussions around ratifying the Convention Against Torture or the Rome Statute that would, at the very least, swiftly fortify individual cases for resettlement? How is the government managing the present space of stamping out xenophobic discourse and setting in stone policies that decriminalize the RAS community?

As of now, serious inaction and ignorance continue to prevail on the part of the newly minted Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed’s administration. Heaped on with nationwide plaudits as the “most admired man”, what he has accomplished for the neglected RAS community amounts to a cipher.

Mahathir is desirable simply by and for Malaysian citizens. Those born and raised in the country coming from an ancestry of ethnic Malays or Chinese, essentially. The little-known group of stateless individuals is invisibilized in the talk around championing human rights and broad-based justice. No one wants to listen to the ‘outsiders’.

In short, some untapped laws and missteps Mahathir’s administration took proving their “progressive” policies — or lack thereof — towards integrating the RAS community in Malaysian society are as follows:

· No attempts to revive debate around ratifying the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees yet, removing the commonly assumed asylum seekers status which leaves the hundreds of thousands to be legally affirmed as ‘illegal immigrants’ in Malaysia under the Immigration Act 1959/63;

· Oct ’18-present: Mahathir’s vocal opposition to the arbitrary violence perpetrated against the Rohingya Muslims fleeing state-sponsored terror has only seen proposals of an international monitoring body and, well, vacuous calls to action;

· May ’19: Mahathir refused an anti-monarchy Thai activist to stay in Malaysia despite her registration with the UNHCR to fulfill the request of his “good neighbor” Thailand.

To the international community, Mahathir is a peacenik and pro-Palestinian proponent. Just a gentle reminder that so was former US president Obama known as the conflict-resolving leader when in reality, he ordered the massacre of thousands of civilians in Pakistan using drone attacks and made a historic mark on becoming the first sitting US president to deport the most ‘illegal immigrants’ back to their countries where they were at risk of death.

No matter what moving humanitarian speech you hear on the world stage, Malaysian immigration authorities have not even regularized Rohingya refugees. Making proclamations in support of the millions of displaced Rohingya people while countless are undocumented and live in squalor is parallel to shooting yourself in the foot a million times over.

Whatever the results may be in the short-run, a Muslim country like Malaysia should drop the political yardstick to measure up to international standards and switch to and apply a rights-based approach. This time with judicial independence passing a law ensuring a full-scale shield for the RAS community if Mahathir really means what he purports to do.

It infuriates me that a vast quasi-monocratic economy can’t afford to properly house, feed and educate innocent people who didn’t ask to become refugees. No one does. If anything, they are more valuable to Malaysia society than white expats. They work twice as hard as team players making sure no one gets left behind in getting to where you want.

That’s a skill Mahathir can’t see.