My socio-economic privilege and the fact that I hold a Canadian passport give me the freedom of mobility that the majority of the world’s population may not have. Many are using their life earnings to take on this journey in hope for a better future, while I have the freedom and privilege to be planning trips for personal pleasure. When I arrived in Kuala Lumpur, the border control officer asked how long I intended to stay and was not even concerned about the purpose of my trip, as it was likely assumed that I was a tourist. The process was quick and easy, but I am aware this is not the case for everyone. If I was holding a different passport, it is likely the officer could assume that I intended to stay longer than I was permitted, and would thus demand more information.
A few days after arriving, I once again became aware of my own privilege. Claire, my fellow intern, and I were returning home in a taxi and the police signalled the car to pull over at a road security checkpoint. They asked to see our passports, but we didn’t have them with us. Instead, we had taken a photocopy of the ID page, which we showed to the officers.
“Not good enough. Where are your passports?” asked the officer.
“We left them in a safe place where we are staying, but we do have a photocopy and other identification on us,” we replied.
“Not my problem. You have five minutes to get someone to bring them”, said the police officer.
We convinced them to let one of us go home and return with the passports, while the other stayed at the checkpoint. This experience was yet another reminder of my social advantage. A checkpoint for an asylum seeker who is considered “illegal” could mean detention or deportation. The police often stop refugees to check theirdocumentation, which can result in assault and robbery. When these people’s rights are violated and it is difficult to impossible for them to access the legal system to report such incidents; a right I take for granted.
The Malaysian visa policy has no negative impact on me as I can easily exit and re-enter the country. For others, however, this is not the case. After their three-month entry visa expires, even if these people have managed to retain their passports, which are often held or confiscated by smugglers, they are considered “illegal” under the law. One could argue that being able to receive a visa upon arrival is a positive thing because it gives people the opportunity to go to Malaysia on a plane and not to have to travel by boat or on foot (which in fact still happens, as there are many using such means to reach Malaysia). I have come to understand that unfortunately, the truth is that refugees traveling by plane still rely on illicit networks to issue passports and arrange travel. From Afghanistan, for example, an individual must be twenty-one years old to exit the country. This means that in order to leave the country many minors must purchase fake passports that state they are over twenty-one.
The reality is that many people are drowning in the sea trying to reach a safe destination; many are abducted between borders, trafficked, and forced into unlawful contracts, which demand repayment to their smugglers, who are working under the guise of helping them, while in fact they are exploiting them. The picture that circulated on social media of the young child that died in the Aegean Sea made me think, like many others; what if the Turkish and Greek government, for example, were to run a commercial ferry line to allow individuals and families to safely travel? I do understand that this has happened to some degree, however, it does not give justice to the thousands who have and continue to lose their lives and all those who experience yet another trauma, other than the distress of having to abandon their homes and at the moment, for many, warzones. This leads me to question the banal reality of conflict and war.
The focus of the media in the past couple of years has been on the refugee crisis that Europe is facing with thousands of people trying to enter that space, as well as, on the fear that there may be terrorists among the refugees. What about the terror that is forcing people to leave everything behind and take on an unsafe, unknown and unpredictable journey? Of course many are discussing this, educating people like myself, and challenging the underlying structures such as capitalism and patriarchy, which produce these systemic inequalities, in order to bring social change. I am not trying to say that the relocation of people is not a required apparatus and a significant part of the solution. If I believed this, I would not be here interning with an organization that is dedicated to supporting refugees in their new environment and in their process of being granted refugee status and hopefully, resettled. Instead, I am briefly stating that it is important to address the roots of the problem, to discuss issues such as the role of colonialism, of external intervention, of climate change, of the capitalist ideology and of political interests that are destroying people’s livelihoods.
Laws affect different individuals in a variety of ways, and I realize how ignorant I can sometimes be of what a policy or legal process means for somebody else. Although I can make assumptions about the prevalence of police violence, for example, I can never truly understand the complexity of the issues the way someone who has to live the experience every day can. I have the opportunity to discuss such issues on platforms like this one, while those living under these oppressive systems most often do not have the chance to make their voices heard. This leaves me with the responsibility to be mindful of myposition and how I express what I am learning, and furthermore, how laws impact me in comparison to others.