International Instruments Protecting Refugees’ Rights
The 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention and 1967 Protocol, treaties in international law, are key instruments outlining the rights of refugees, as well as the obligations of member-states in realizing these rights and protecting displaced people. Up to date, 148 nation states have signed one or both of these documents, while numerous nations have yet to ratify them. First, I briefly discuss what it means to be a member-state of the convention. Then, I look at the Malaysian context and how the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) operates in the country.
Signing the convention mentioned above is to accept the UN definition of a refugee: “Someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion”. Member-states are required to safeguard that such individuals are protected and not sent back to their country of origin where they face persecution and serious threats to their lives and rights. Moreover, signatory states are expected to work with UNHCR and to not penalize individuals seeking asylum for committing migration offences. Furthermore, members-states are obliged to provide basic services for refugees, such as ensuring that they have access to the legal system, to primary education, formal employment, and to health care facilities.
Being a Refugee in Malaysia and UNHCR in the Malaysian Context
Malaysia has not signed neither the 1951 Refugee Convention nor the 1967 Protocol, which means that it is not obliged to provide protection and support for refugees, and in fact, to even recognize their refugee status. It would be beneficial for the country to improve its legal framework to address the needs and ensure the realization of the rights of refugees. Currently, refugees can be treated as undocumented migrants, which puts them at risk of being charged for immigration offences and thus, of facing imprisonment, detention or deportation. Refugees do not have access to formal employment, although many do work informally, nor do they have access to formal education. Many do, however, send their kids to school, such as to the school program offered by the Malaysian Social Research Institute, where I am interning, which provides primary and secondary education to refugee children. Displaced people have access to health care facilities, but without a UNHCR card they are at risk of being reported to the police by health care personnel, which is very common. Even those who do hold a UNHCR card have reported threats, harassment and/or abuse by police officials. A UN refugee card also provides a 50% discount for health care services. However, many still find it difficult to access these services, as the fees are often unaffordable and because of language barriers. Asylum seekers, who are waiting for their cases to be processed at UNHCR, do not get the 50% discount. The UNHCR has recently decided to issue one type of identity card to both asylum seekers and registered refugees in order for everyone to receive the 50% discount. However, a number of political figures are opposing this change.
The UNHCR began operations in Malaysia in 1975 when Vietnamese refugees were seeking asylum. For the following two decades, UNHCR supported the Malaysian government to resettle Vietnamese refugees in various countries and to also repatriate many when it was safe to do so. Although Malaysia may not be a member-state, it has been cooperating with the refugee agency to address the needs of asylum seekers in hope of resettling them since UNHCR’s first operations in the country. UNHCR works closely with government organizations, with NGOs and civil society organizations to support displaced people. The Malaysian government sees the country as a transition point and pushes for the resettlement of refugees, as leaders have stated that they are not able to provide long-term support for displaced people. Since there are thousands of individuals and families entering the country to seek asylum, Malaysia continues to allow UNHCR to operate but this could change at any moment because it is not a member-state. The government could decide to close down the Refugee Agency’s offices, just like the Thai government forced UNHCR to suspend services to Myanmese/Burmese asylum seekers in 2004 for a few months. This poses a risk for the agency and the many individuals it serves, which is why organizations and civil society are advocating for the Malaysian government to sign the convention and expand its support of refugees.
Here is the link where you could read the 1951 Refugee Convention and find more information about the UNHCR http://www.unhcr.org/1951-refugee-convention.html
In my first blog, I share some reflections about my experience and the benefits of stopping and listening.
First of all, I would like to apologize for my raspy voice that decided to make an appearance on the day of this interview. My immune system has proven to be less than sufficient over the past few weeks. Regardless of this, I have been trying to figure out the best way to structure my first blog post. This has been unexpectedly challenging for me – not in that I did not have enough to say, but in that I had too much that I wanted to tackle. The last month has been dedicated to familiarizing myself with a project titled ‘Strengthening Civil Society of the Urban Poor to Participate in Planning and Monitoring of Sanitation Services in Indian Cities’. The complexities that exist within the issue of urban sanitation in India are profuse. It is therefore extremely difficult to grasp an overall understanding of why basic sanitation facilities do not exist in many informal settlements; and the devastations that stems from lacking sanitation needs such as clean water, and functional toilets.
One particular aspect that has stuck out to me in trying to form a basic understanding of the complex project has been that of the governmental tier in India; focusing on this has been helpful in solidifying (some) context and background of the project. One bit of history that I think worth mentioning is the 74th Amendment Act of 1992 – a constitutional amendment that ultimately gave validity to Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) by outlining the structures, functions, and resource generation capabilities of ULBs. Logistically, this amendment was supposed to enable more people to participate in the decision making process of everything from economics to infrastructure.
Once again, it is seemingly impossible to simplify the significance of this amendment and its relation to urban sanitation. Thus, instead of attempting to explain the diversity of this project (which would probably have confused whoever listening, as well as myself, even more), I decided to conduct a casual interview with two of my coworkers, who do a MUCH better job than myself at “boiling it down”. Thank you to Sukrit and Swathi for the insightful discussion!
Hello dear readership! Thank you kindly for endeavouring to read my first set of reflections on life in Dhaka.
My first post is all about the stresses of sharing my Dhaka experience, and how I might try to mitigate the things that make me uncomfortable. I have always fancied myself a bit of a storyteller, but this facet of my personality has been challenged by a sort of existential ‘storyteller’s crisis’ that I have encountered while going about assembling this first blog.
‘Storyteller’s crisis’ sounds horribly pretentious, and I apologize for that, but it really gets to the heart of the conundrum I have faced in my first twenty three days in Dhaka. The ‘crisis’ manifests itself in endless questions and self-critiques, largely focused on the absurdity of me, a Canadian newcomer to the city, writing anything worth reading about Dhaka – a vibrant and massively diverse city that is so much more than the little things I observe about it.
How can I write about this city, or its people, without doing it immense injustices? I know so little. My personal methods of understanding, and my ways of explaining, are totally inappropriate to Dhaka’s context. I have no background for what I encounter in Dhaka. When I see something, I see the surface of what is going on; the event-moment only, and none of the mechanisms that created that event. Simply put, my brain has little of the contextual tools necessary for understanding the things it receives through the eye sockets.
So how do I communicate my experiences to friends and loved ones back home? If I write a paragraph on pollution in my blog, do I write two more on the beautiful artwork that graces the countless rickshaws that roam Dhaka’s streets? If I write one on begging, do I write two more on the wondrous shared laughter and joy that occurs when shopkeepers encounter me trying hard to speak Bangla to them? Even if I were to balance negative and positive stories, the same problem would persist, and it is embedded in the very nature of the story itself. Stories are, of course, subjective and one-dimensional by nature, and this is true even when they attempt to incorporate other voices and perspectives. Selection of quotes, for instance, seemingly gives the writer the ability to make others say what they are needed to say.
I am making this rant as a sort of preamble for the stories I plan to tell in subsequent blogs. It’s a disclaimer – if you will – declaring the contents of this blog to be far from a comprehensive account of the stories included in it. Dhaka is a city full of unique and rich perspectives – somewhere upwards of 20 million of them – and there is a sort of tongue-tiedness that results from experiencing this grand diversity on a daily basis, and then contemplating writing a reflection of these experiences.
And here lies the dilemma I have so precociously dubbed the “storyteller’s crisis.” I am so excited to share in this blog about my experiences working with the amazing team at the Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit (RMMRU), but I am respectful of the fact that my stories of them cannot do them, or their work, full justice. Likewise, Dhaka city, and the people I encounter within it, cannot be limited to the keyboard at my fingertips. All of which leads me to ask readers – please, take my words here with several massive grains of salt.
I think the reason this blog became so much about a ‘crisis’ of description is because I am still learning the details of my life here. Everything is still so gestational, and my brain is rushing to keep up with every new development. For these reasons, I worry when I have to share my experiences, because I fear I will miss an important detail and misrepresent a scenario or person. However, maybe by sticking to the basics – and continually referring to those massive grains of salt – I can share a little bit of the very important work that I am so fortunate to be a part of.
RMMRU, as I mentioned before, is up to some really cool things. One focus of their research is the investigation of the relationship between climate change and internal migration within Bangladesh. I have been asked to edit some of these works, and thus have gotten a chance to read the migrant surveys that the organization carries out as one of its primary research methods. The importance of organizations like RMMRU is reinforced for me whenever I read of homes and livelihoods being washed away by typhoons and floods, a bleak reality for many Bangladeshis. On the other hand, the various adaptation practices utilized by these affected peoples highlights their phenomenal agency and endurance in the face of staggering challenges.
Whenever I start wondering about what I am doing in Dhaka, a place so beyond my understanding that I stressfully blog about my inability to describe it, I remind myself that any assistances or partnership that I can provide to RMMRU is, I believe, time and energy very well spent. They are storytellers that matter here – their research tells the stories that will hopefully shift policy – and so my job is to be the best-supporting and most-eager-to-learn intern that I can manage to be. Focusing on that simple fact is currently my most potent antidote for the storyteller’s crises that I have come across.
Until next time,