By Bindi Rajasegaran, District Rotary Peace Fellowships Subcommittee Chair and District 3300 Governor-nominee, Malaysia
This past March, more than 280 delegates gathered for a Peacebuilders Conference organized by Rotary District 3300, Malaysia, in partnership with local Rotary clubs, UNHCR, Brickfields Asia College, the Islamic Medical Association of Malaysia Response and Relief Team (IMARET), Carefugees, Mercy Malaysia and Microsoft under the theme: United for Peace: Our Basic Right to Dignity, Safety and Respect. Delegates represented 87 NGOs working with refugees, nine Government Departments and Ministries, seven Foreign Missions and Rotarians.
The event demonstrated the importance of the coalition of NGOs in the work they do for refugees. To help overcome negative perceptions of refugees, there is a need for more understanding and awareness of the refugee community. There is an urgent need for civil society and governments to recognize and assist with the basic needs of refugees including documentation, livelihood, education and health.
The conference began with a welcome address from District Governor Dr. Baskaran Gobala Krishnan:
“There are more people displaced in this world today than ever in recorded history. It is in these kinds of situations that a refugee reaches our shores. They are sad, devastated, fearful, distrusting and mostly depressed. It is a situation that no one would ever like to be in and my friends, this is where we come in. When they land on our shores, how do we handle them? Do we show them love and kindness and treat them with a certain decorum of dignity or do we ignore their plight and treat them as a threat to us or as a burden to our society? This is the dilemma that we need to resolve.”
In Malaysia, there is no legal framework to manage the refugee crisis. The highlight of the event was a powerful speech by Honorary Rotarian His Highness Tunku Zain Al-’Abidin:
“We have seen emotional appeals for Malaysians to help our Rohingya brothers and sisters, and yet actual assistance to those who are already here could easily be amplified. Proposals to enable refugee children to attend government schools is always countered with the idea that Malaysian parents might get upset, with little attempt to show that the cost of not letting them attend school could indeed be higher in the long run. We have also learned of many instances where highly qualified refugees, including doctors, are unable to contribute their skills to Malaysian society or the economy because they are not legally allowed to do so, yet the fear of a floodgate of mythical job-stealers remains.
I suggest that [we] can and should construct a new narrative that shows that a more enlightened and humanitarian approach can be good for our economy, our democracy and our commitment to human rights which of course, will result in the uplifting of our brothers and sisters of all religions. Governments, civil society and the private sector should play their part by setting the right examples in terms of employment, and more widely by educating the public of the horrors of war through the education curriculum, cultural exchange programmes or museums showcasing the fruits of peace and mutually beneficial interactions.”
We also heard heartfelt stories by two refugees on their real life plight and journey, one was a lady in incognito from Afghanistan who ran away with her two young children from the atrocities of her husband and family. The other, a young Syrian refugee who struggled against odds escaping war to build a new life life because he believed in himself.
The panel sessions examined four areas of concern: documentation, livelihood, education and health. The conference concluded with the organizing chair, Dato’ Bindi Rajasegaran, proposing three recommendations that were presented to the Deputy Minister to forward to the Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia for discussion at the cabinet level.
The proposals suggested that we first establish a committee as a tripartite of civil society, NGOs and the Government. Secondly, a nationwide immunization program for all refugee children with the possible partnership of stakeholders including UNHCR, WHO, UNICEF, and Ministry of Health amongst others. The health of vulnerable children is of the utmost importance and we cannot risk their lives by not giving them the basic protection including polio drops.
The conference was a great success in exchanging ideas and bringing awareness to the refugee crisis.