Unpacking the Refugee Reality


Winding down the month dedicated to digital detox, I find it timely to write about the important lessons that this month of making time for myself has offered me. Importantly, with this writing and clarification of thoughts, I hope to revisit the value of awareness. Absence is silent – for as long as we do not actively search for it, we will remain dangerously unaware. In our comfortable lives of privilege, it requires extra caution for so many important issues are absent from our everyday lives. We fall prey of apathy, of unkindness and of a lack of understanding. More time dedicated to reflections, reading and attending meaningful discussions this month have brought to light issues that we do not talk about enough. Hence, this is the first piece in a series of three that I have decided to write on issues I have recently been offered increased insight and awareness on.

This first one is on The Refugee Reality.

Days ago, I had the opportunity to be amidst many advocates for refugees at the Refugee Awareness Week 2016 (RAW 2016) Panel Discussion put together by Advocates for Refugees – Singapore (AFR-SG) bringing together inspired (and inspiring) individuals with their stories to tell on the refugee situation. Before then, I had been completely unaware of the gravity of the Refugee Reality today – statistics have it that 59.5 million people were forcibly displaced people worldwide in 2014 alone, and 2.7 million people come from the Southeast Asian region. The numbers are shocking and I am almost ashamed at my oblivion to this reality despite my access to information.

AFR-SG is a local volunteer-led group that aims to create constructive platforms for community dialogue on regional and global refugee and forced migration issues. AFR-SG wants to raise awareness, address misconceptions and garner support for the refugee cause through constant engagement with the public. In their brochure for RAW 2016, the illustration of how these numbers represent lives and human beings suffering gave me further affirmation that this Refugee Reality had to be made known:

“Imagine your home – the place your family has lived for decades, has been destroyed. You fear for your children’s lives, every day and every night. You and your family no longer have access to jobs, incomes, secure food supply, medical care and education. Imagine some of your friends, colleagues and relatives have lost their lives in the civil war. You have to flee the chaos and violence. Where do you go? How do you get there?”

It is happening, right at our backyards. The Rohingya-Rakhine Conflict in 2012 saw a series of conflicts between the Buddhist Rakhines and Muslim Rohingyas resulting in hundreds of deaths and injuries. This led to more than 170,000 Rohingyas undertaking risky sea journeys, hoping to disembark at neighbouring Southeast Asian countries with little success. Subsequently, our region saw the Boat People Crisis in 2015 where Rohingya refugees paid smugglers large amounts of money to undertake these arduous boat journeys from the Bay of Bengal through to Andaman Sea with the intention of arriving in Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia. The lack of legal frameworks to allow the disembarkation of these refugees left many refugees on these “floating concentration camps” for up to 6 months. The conditions on these boats are a far cry from liveable – the lack of sanitation allowed disease to spread, the lack of food lead to starvation and famine, the isolation saw smugglers take advantage of vulnerable refugees (especially women).

We must not turn a blind eye to this reality any longer. We have refugees*, asylum seekers*, internally displaced persons* and stateless persons* amidst us in our region – every one of them a human being with immense potential, with aspirations beyond their basic needs and they need help without a doubt. From the moment of displacement (which is of no choice nor fault of their own), they have been searching desperately for security and belonging. Here I quote members of AFR-SG:

“The Rohingya Muslims were stripped of their citizenship in Myanmar 30 years ago – they are stateless. Their status quo provides them no access to permanent residence, healthcare, education, suffrage and employment. The aforementioned are tickets to their susceptibility to abuse.”

  • A *refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.
  • An *asylum seeker is one who flees his/her own country to seek sanctuary in another country and applies for the right to be recognized as a refugee and receive legal protection and material assistance.
  • An *internally displaced person is one who has been forced to flee his/her home for the same reason as a refugee, but remains in his/her own country and has not crossed an international border. They are not protected by international law or eligible to receive many types of aid.
  • A *stateless person is someone who is not a citizen of any country. Citizenship is the legal bond between a government and an individual, allowing for certain political, economic, social and other rights of the individual.

As a Singaporean, I take my passport and IC as an entitlement for being given birth to within the geographical boundaries of this nation. The Refugee Reality feels distant because of the comfort that I take for granted. Our place of birth is by no means a result of our choice or effort and should not be good enough a reason to deny us a place to belong, a sanctuary for safety and access to basic necessities. These refugees pay the human price for circumstances beyond their control: political conflict, natural disasters, weak governance. It is time we rediscover the humanity within us to deem this reality as unacceptable and to recognize that this has to change.

It is disappointing that in today’s age of technology and information transfer, such realities remain under the carpet. It is time for more and better conversations about the Refugee Reality to surface.


8 thoughts on “Unpacking the Refugee Reality

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