Confronting the Refugee Reality

RAW Panel Discussion2

Earlier, I had written about unpacking the Refugee Reality – listing statistics and quoting stories in hopes of conveying how real the refugee situation is in the Southeast Asia region. Being incredibly uncomfortable with this reality has necessitated my active engagement in understanding the measures that can be taken to manage this reality. During the panel discussion by Advocates for Refugees – Singapore, Ms. Lilianne Fan (Co-Founder of Geutanyoe Foundation) reminded us to be careful in not labelling this “reality” as a “problem”. It is important because the refugees are a product of the problem rather than the problem in themselves.

This one is about confronting the reality and insights inspired by the individuals on the panel.

Political Will: Absent or Present?

The 1951 Refugee Convention forms the basis of the work of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Therein, the core principle is non-refoulement, which asserts that a refugee should not be returned to a country where they face serious threats to their life or freedom. This is now considered a rule of customary international law. The lack of enforcement power by the UN on any of its member nations aside, the signatories of the 1951 Refugee Convention sees only 3 out of 11 Southeast Asian countries. The 3 signatories (Philippines, Timor Leste and Cambodia), paradoxically, are the poorer countries of the region.

The stark absence of relatively more prosperous countries in the region committing to this protection of refugee rights raises questions about the political will (or lack thereof) of ASEAN countries in confronting the Refugee Reality.

Granted, the concern of these prosperous Southeast Asian countries lie in the probable entry of an “unlimited flow of refugees” (a phrase thrown around in discussion) that threatens the domestic stability of these countries. Considering an open-door policy to refugees also calls for a difficult question to be addressed – “how do we decide who gets to come in and who doesn’t?” On top of this, one other challenge was surfaced in our discussion with regard to governmental-level measures taken to confront this reality. Southeast Asian countries are seeing increasingly democratic electoral processes: this evolving electorate-government relationship increases the tension as the dilemma between protecting domestic needs (as promised) and meeting those of the refugees’ with exhaustive resources grows.

Pessimism was transformed into hope as our discussion shifted to focusing on the ground-up will which is within our control. It appears that we have to let go of waiting endlessly for top-down action by our governments held in a gridlock over multiple concerns – the abovementioned dilemma of meeting needs and the (in)famous principle of non-intervention of the ASEAN community. “How about we confront this Refugee Reality?” suggested Dr. Oh Su-Ann.

Continue the Conversation

The Refugee Awareness Week 2016 (Singapore) were amongst many other similar festivals around the region brought together by like-minded advocates. Highlights are centred around bringing out the lives and people behind the Refugee Reality which is so often reported as numbers, with little call for humanity as there should be. This is promising, but it can be better. While governmental discussions so often focus on this issue as an “illegal immigration problem”, the development of appropriate economic and humanitarian frameworks to support refugees is compromised. The inevitable flow of refugees will continue as a result of crises: natural disasters, a lack of development and political conflict. How prepared are we as an ASEAN community? How receptive will we be as people to refugees who come to our shores?

Continue to remind one another of the complexity of the Refugee Reality as it concerns human lives. Remember the childhoods destroyed by “running away” being made the norm and remember that no child should have to undergo this extent of trauma from a circumstance beyond their control. Keep in mind the capacity of every human being and think these refugees not as “burdens” but as “potential”. Especially with their tenacity to live and support their community, they will be assets to communities that learn to embrace them. Only if this conversation persists on all avenues possible will increasing attention be devoted to developing the necessary frameworks to support them.

Why should we care?

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. The basic humanitarian principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence should be reason enough to do something. Humanitarian action must be taken on the basis of need alone. In the words of Ms. Lilianne, “somebody needs help, we help them.”

Confronting a reality this complex and widespread may be daunting at first, so I propose that our individual responsibility towards the Refugee Reality is taken in three simple steps: awareness, advocacy and action.

You may consider finding out more about the panelists’ amazing work –

  • Geutamyoe Foundation is an Aceh–based organisation established by activists who pioneered the humanitarian and non-violent civic movement in Aceh since 1999. They are dedicated to cultivating and upholding values of  dignity, humanity, equality, justice, peace, democracy, and sustainability in Aceh and Southeast Asia.
  • What a Relief is started by Singaporean Wayne Abdullah, who is a full-time businessman juggling two jobs — running his enterprises Gecko Wash, a car wash company, and Firefly Horizon, a training consultancy firm. Despite his busy schedule, the entrepreneur still finds the time for charity.
  • Peumulia Jamee means “honouring your guest”. It is the title of 3 NTU student’s Final Year Project – a documentary about Aceh’s response towards the Rohingya refugee crisis.

RAW Panel Discussion


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