Don’t like refugees? Try meeting one

Refugees in Malaysia are not allowed to work, which forces many to earn their living illegally.

PETALING JAYA: A study has shown that many Malaysians with negative perceptions of refugees have never met one before.

Melati Nungsari, an assistant professor of economics at the Asia School of Business, found that a person can drop his negative attitudes after interacting with refugees for as few as three hours.

“This could mean that to change the public perception on refugee issues, one thing that can be done at a very small cost is to simply increase exposure of Malaysians to refugees in person,” she told FMT.

“It makes Malaysians realise that refugees are not so different from themselves, that their needs and wants are essentially the same.”

Melati’s study, which analysed changes in implicit biases of Malaysian volunteers, especially those who had never met a refugee before, found that a lack of knowledge was the main reason behind their uneasiness with the refugee population.

“Most Malaysians only know about refugees from the news they read or watch, and this is, of course, quite limited,” she said.

However, she observed that there had generally been positive changes in the attitude of Malaysians over the years.

“For instance, it is now common to see social enterprises selling products made by refugees or championing refugees’ rights in bazaars all around the country, which are generally well-received by local patrons,” she said.

Refugees in Malaysia are not allowed to work, and this has forced many to earn their living illegally doing dangerous and demeaning jobs. Many are vulnerable to getting cheated by their employers.

“Denying people access to job opportunities makes them desperate, which could force them into undesirable situations, such as having to beg for money on the streets, steal or being trafficked,” she said.

She said there was not enough data to inform refugee policies in Southeast Asia.

Melati Nungsari.

“Refugee issues have been well-studied in the Middle East and in Europe, but the academic research on Southeast Asia, and in particular Malaysia, is quite sparse,” she said.

Because of this, Melati and her colleagues held a research workshop on refugee issues in Southeast Asia last year, which was attended by more than 60 individuals from different backgrounds. Among those who took part were academics, NGO representatives and government officials from Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore.

She said the participants noted that the most pressing issues facing refugees in the region were the lack of legal protection or recognition, the denial of the right to work and access to affordable healthcare and formal education.

“The vast majority of refugees in Southeast Asia are not legally recognised by the governments of the countries in which they reside,” she said.

The Philippines and Cambodia are the only two Asean countries that have ratified the United Nations Refugee Convention of 1951 and Protocol of 1967, which set out the rights of refugees and the responsibilities of nations that grant them asylum.

Nevertheless, Melati acknowledged that Malaysia had become quite accommodating of refugees.

“Unlike Thailand, we do not place all refugees in camps,” she said. “Instead, we allow relatively free movement in the country.”

She also said refugees in Malaysia were not too aggressively targeted by law enforcement agencies and were allowed to seek treatment at public hospitals, even though they were required to pay foreigners’ rates.

Melati spent two years compiling her data. She attributed the lack of information partly to the virtual invisibility of refugees because the size of their population is small compared to the Malaysian population. There are about 170,000 refugees and 30 million Malaysians.

She also said academics were, until recently, avoiding research on refugee issues for fear of upsetting the politically powerful.

She said the Pakatan Harapan government’s pledge to sign the 1951 Refugee Convention had led to a shift among academics and they were now seeing the topic as more acceptable for detailed studies.