Sara, twelve, and Umaida, seven, are two orphaned Rohingya refugee children living in Johor with their grandparents. Earlier this year, their grandmother, Zuleikha, passed away after suffering from chronic diabetes. The uncertainty of their situation is worsened not only by her passing but also by the illness of their grandfather, Hanif. At present, they live on the meagre assistance they receive from their neighbours who are refugees themselves. Otherwise, the family of three is very much on their own. They struggle very hard just to get by.
Sara and Umaida desire strongly to attend school. Although they were born in Malaysia, they have never been able to enter public schools. It is not their poverty that denies them access to education; it is their irregular immigration status. Through no fault of their own, they have no passports or Malaysian identification cards and because of that, Sara and Umaida are labeled as ‘illegals’ in Malaysia.
Illegal or undocumented?
No human beings are illegal. The truth in that statement becomes ever more apparent when we think of refugee children, like Sara and Umaida, who were born in a country that does not recognize them as refugees. Sara and Umaida did not choose to come to Malaysia. Like the other 11,200 refugee children registered with UNHCR in Malaysia as of July 2008, their parents fled from persecution in their home countries and have fled to our shores seeking protection.
Rohingyas, who originate from the Northern Rakhine (formerly Arakan) state in Myanmar, not only suffer under the militaristic rule of the junta in Myanmar but also are denied Myanmar citizenship. According to Amnesty International Rohingyas have suffered forced eviction, house destruction, forced labour, summary executions, torture and rape under the hands of the military junta since 1978 (see “Myanmar, The Rohingya Minority: Fundamental Rights Denied” by Amnesty International). Seeking an end to this violence directed against them and filled with the hope of a better life, many Rohingyas have fled to Bangladesh since 1978 and to Malaysia during the 1990s. Currently, there are 13,400 Rohingya refugees registered with the UNHCR in Malaysia although
Malaysia has not signed the 1951 Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees and therefore labels all those who enter Malaysia by infracting immigration laws, even children, as “illegals”. Our rejection of this derogatory term is not purely a semantic matter. We reject this term as it denies refugees the status of being a person with inherent dignity and inalienable rights. We reject it because it stigmatizes refugees as criminals, while the law that their infract is administrative relating to immigration laws. We reject it because it denies refugees access to services such as education and health care that ensure their dignity. In place of the term ‘illegal’ we will use the term ‘undocumented’.
Created in the image and likeness of God
If we turn to Catholic Social Teaching we find a wealth of literature that seeks to protect the dignity of the human person, refugee or otherwise, against the onslaughts of increasing greed and xenophobia present in our society. These tendencies enforces certain stereotypes; such as that refugees are a source of a plethora of social ills ranging from increasing crime rates, unemployment, prostitution and communicable disease. Thus we find in Christifideles Laici: “The dignity of the person is manifested in all its radiance when the person’s origin and destiny are considered: created by God in His image and likeness as well as redeemed by the most precious blood of Christ, the person is called to be a ‘child in the Son’ and a living temple of the Spirit, destined for eternal life of blessed communion with God. For this very reason every violation of the personal dignity of the human being cries out in vengeance to God and is an offense against the Creator of the individual” (Christifideles Laici, n. 37)
In direct reference to refugees, the Church proclaims forcefully that She “is close to them not only with her pastoral presence and material support, but also with her commitment to defend their human dignity: ‘Concern for refugees must lead us to reaffirm and highlight universally recognized human rights, and to ask that the effective recognition of these rights be guaranteed to refugees’. (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, n. 505) Therefore, if we wish to protect the dignity of the human person, and of refugees in particular, the Church teaches that we need to advocate for the protection of universal human rights.
From tolerance to hospitality
Malaysia’s treatment of refugee children wavers from blatant disregard for them to a very diminutive tolerance of their presence. We hear often of Rohingya refugee children who have lived here in Johor for a good number of years without any incident, having never attented school or having any access to health care. However, Malaysia’s treatment of refugees has degenerated ever since the volunteer corps RELA (Ikatan Relawan Rakyat) was empowered to reduce the incidence of irregular migration. We hear of increasing raids targeted to flush out and arrest refugees. Sadly, we have even heard of reports of children arrested and sent to Immigration Detention Centres, a practice that goes against the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child (CRC) which has been ratified by Malaysia. We would like to propose that we move away from this careless tolerance to unconditional hospitality to the strangers in our midst.
Narratives of hospitality abound in Scripture. We hear of Abraham and Sarah who extended hospitality to strangers (Gen 18:1-8) and how this hospitality became a paradigm throughout the Old Testament for the treatment of strangers. We also hear of the the hospitality of Abigail placating David (1 Sam 25) and the widow of Zarephath caring for Elijah (1 Kgs 17:18-24).
The divine command to be hospitable to strangers becomes increasingly important in order to remember how the Israelites, our ancestors in faith, had once been strangers themselves in a foreign land and of how God had liberated them from their enslavement. “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” (Lev 19:33-34)
In the New Testament, we hear of how the Holy Family were refugees in the land of Egypt as they fled Israel to escape the wrath of Herod. We see numerous examples of Jesus’ hospitality to strangers and we also hear clearly of Jesus’ call to see Him in those who suffer starvation and thirst (Mt 25:31). Refugees suffer starvation and thirst often whether they live in jungle sites or in abandoned urban flats. We are reminded that we will be judged on how we respond to the least in society before God. “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Mt 25:40).
A space for the stranger in our midst
While our country has failed to be hospitable to many refugees who have come knocking on our door to seek protection, there have been many Civil Society Groups and Non-governmental Organizations that make a difference in the lives of refugees. Some organizations are involved in providing health care for refugees and these organizations save lives. Others provide informal education for refugee children, like Sara and Umaida. They give refugee children the opportunity to dream a different life, a life free from the shackles of poverty and uncertainty. Even as these groups suffer persecution, they teach us what hospitality to the stranger is all about.
They teach us that hospitality to refugees begins not with grandiose ideas but of responding to very urgent and necessary needs that ensures the dignity of child refugees. In the final analysis, they teach us that hospitality to refugee children begins with creating a space in our heart that is open enough to accept the stranger-child placed in our midst as we did accept the Child that was once born in a humble manger in Bethlehem.
The article above is written by Sch. Mark Aloysius, SJ for the December issue of Catholic Asian News and is republished with the permission of the author. Sch Mark Aloysius is a member of the Migrant and Refugee Desk of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Melaka-Johor.