Parliament must protect children and refugees

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Abidin Ideas

IN commemorating World Refugee Day, I recall last month’s roundtable organised by the All Party Parliamentary Group Malaysia (APPGM) on Refugee Policy through its secretariat, the Geutanyoe Foundation.

It was my first time meeting the new chairman of the group – the MP for Bukit Bendera Syerleena Abdul Rashid – and her introductory speech gave me confidence that she and her fellow MPs from both sides of the aisle would make important policy contributions.

The very existence of APPGMs, alongside Parliamentary Select Committees, marks a significant reform in our policy making since 2018. For the first time, backbench MPs and senators have a platform to officially include civil society advocates, activists and academics in policymaking.

I began my speech by referencing first Yang di-Pertuan Agong’s royal address in 1959, urging members of the House to “conduct your affairs in such a way that Parliament will be a shining beacon of democracy at its brightest and best.”

The two papers launched that day focused on Rohingya. Some 107,000 have registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, but there are probably several multiples of that number in Malaysia. Over the years, the policies and narratives about the community have been chaotic, driven by shifting domestic and foreign policy demands.

I remember being told to welcome and defend Rohingya as our Muslim brothers and sisters. Then we were told not to be too nice, like letting them attend our schools, or ‘stealing’ our jobs (but read IDEAS’ paper on the economic benefits of letting refugees work!).

Recently, we have seen actual violence on Rohingya communities being committed and even championed on TikTok, including forced removal from mosques during prayer (so much for ‘welcoming our Muslim brothers’).

Addressing such material online therefore joins the recommendations from the two papers, which advocate whole-of-society approaches including ceasing immigration detention of refugee communities, implementing community-based alternatives, utilising lessons from similarly situated countries, providing work rights, employing multi-stakeholder partnerships at all levels and promoting engagement between the refugee community, private sector, Malaysian citizens, civil society organisations and international organisations.

As a priority, clear policies and legal documentation of refugees would help solve the other issues.

The ensuing conversation between the backbenchers and former ministers was fantastic, with everyone agreeing that changes to policy must be based on evidence. There were also invitations to visit communities which will significantly raise the level of understanding.

Optimism among refugee and children’s advocates was further enhanced by the Cabinet’s agreement to amend the Federal Constitution to enable children born overseas to Malaysian mothers married to foreigners to automatically become citizens. There were also discussions on approving citizenship for children in the context of adoption, and a pilot programme on Alternatives to Detention.

Now, while that constitutional amendment has indeed been announced, others have emerged alongside that could be disastrous.

As per a letter by civil society organisations including Yayasan Chow Kit, “the proposal to remove the existing constitutional protection for some categories of stateless children, leaving them without any protection at all, does not make sense and is contrary to the Government’s stated aim to reduce childhood statelessness… the number of stateless people in Malaysia has risen due to a cycle of deprivation and vulnerability. Foundlings, children separated from parents with no proof of parentage, children born out of wedlock, adopted children, and children who were born to stateless parents are all affected by statelessness.”

The letter calls upon the Government to reconsider the proposed amendments and hold a proper consultative dialogue with all relevant stakeholders so that any amendments are just, proportional, and in the best interests of children.

Colleagues were also praising the statement by Tan Sri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil, who pointed out that the constitution currently guarantees that any child not born a citizen of any country is afforded Malaysian citizenship by operation of law: “The constitution ensures that these children are able to access basic rights, including healthcare, education, and shelter. It is a form of protection, because we recognise that children are innocent, and not to be blamed for their situation.  My years as minister of women, family and community development have taught me that removing such protections will only create a host of new needs for an already severely marginalised group of children while simultaneously further exacerbating pervasive structural challenges.”

At the same time, there is great disappointment among civil society that ministers who know better (and indeed have engaged with us!) have remained silent. That disappointment will soon turn into anger.

History shows that politicians do not mind enraging a proportion of their voters – but I hope they realise the enormous, multi-generational consequences that faulty policies for children and refugees will have for the whole country.

* Tunku Zain Al-‘Abidin is a Trustee of Yayasan Chow Kit