Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 20 November 2017

Terrible ordeal faced by world’s refugees, migrants

The suffering of refugees and migrant workers is sometimes unimaginably cruel, as witness the Rohingya and Libyan cases.  More should be done to help them, including in Malaysia


In the last few days I have been reading about the plight of some of the world’s refugees and migrant workers.  It made grim and sad reading indeed.

Take the case of thousands of migrants inside Libya who are being detained in “horrific, inhuman conditions,” according to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein.

UN monitors interviewed migrants (who had fled conflict and poverty from Africa and Asia) at four detention centres in Tripoli in early November.

“Monitors were shocked by what they saw:  thousands of emaciated and traumatised men, women and children piled on top of one another, locked up in hangars with no access to the most basic necessities, and stripped of their human dignity,” said a spokesperson of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).

Detainees at the centres said they are often beaten or prodded with electric sticks if they ask for food or medicine. With no functioning toilets in the facilities, the detainees find it difficult to survive the smell of urine and faeces. Rape and sexual violence are commonplace.

Nearly 20,000 are now in custody, a big jump from 7,000 in mid-September. According to the OHCHR, the European Union is assisting Libya to intercept migrant boats in the Mediterranean to prevent them from reaching European countries.

“We cannot be a silent witness to modern day slavery, rape and other sexual violence and unlawful killings in the name of managing migration and preventing desperate people from reaching Europe’s shores,” said Zeid.  He urged Libya to stamp out human rights violations in the centres and called on the international community not to turn a blind eye to the “unimaginable horrors” suffered by the migrants.

Commissioner Zeid had also been one of the first persons to condemn the attacks on Rohingya villages in Myanmar. He termed it a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.

After enduring the burning of houses and whole villages, the killings of family members and rape of the women, about 620,000 Rohingya refugees have made their way to Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh since 25 August. 

The daily battle for survival continues for these many thousands as food, health services and other basic facilities are far from adequate.

Sexual violence is among the most traumatic experience of the refugees. “My observations point to a pattern of widespread atrocities, including rape, gang-rape by multiple soldiers, forced public nudity and humiliation, and sexual slavery in military captivity directed against Rohingya women and girls,” UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict Pramila Patten said on 16 November after meeting the refugees in their camps.  Most of the rapes were carried out by the Myanmar military, she concluded.

But many refugees are now also exposed to new dangers. Last week, the UN’s International Orgnisation for Migration (IOM) reported that human trafficking and exploitation are now rife among the Rohingya refugees.

Men, women and children are recruited with false offers of paid work.  But they are not paid what was promised.   “They are often deprived of sleep, work more hours than agreed, not allowed to leave their work premises or contact their family,” said  the IOM.

Women and children are often physically or sexually abused.  A number of adolescent girls were forced into prostitution.  In one case, a woman who went to work for a family was brought back to the settlements dead.

The IOM called for action to help Rohingya refugees to mitigate the risks of human trafficking before this spirals out of control.

Another horrifying situation where the country is collapsing and its people dying is in Yemen.  It is facing the largest famine the world has seen in decades if the blockade on basic supplies into the country is not lifted immediately, according to Mark Lowcock, the UN Emergency Relief coordinator.  

Yemen depends on imports for 90 per cent of its daily needs, much of it supplied by aid. Fighting in the country has collapsed the country’s health, water, sanitation systems and this together with lack of food will cause millions to lose their lives as their bodies will not have the strength to fight off disease, said Lowcock.

Yemen has become the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, affecting 21 million, said a spokesman for the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), William Spindler. “Two million internally displaced people, a million returnees and asylum seekers are al struggling to survive through increasingly prolonged displacement.”  

Humanitarian organisations also warned that any disruption in the pipeline of critical supplies such as food, fuel and medicines has the potential to bring millions of people closer to starvation and death. They called for the immediate opening of all air and seaports to ensure entry of supplies.

Internal displacement also creates refugees. Fighting in the Central African Republic has led to 600,000 people internally displaced in the country and over 500,000 refugees outside the country.   In Darfur, a third of its people are still displaced despite the drop in violence.

Malaysia has its own issues to deal with regarding refugees and migrants.  There were 62,513 Rohingya refugees in the country as of September, according to Datuk Seri Shahidan Kassim, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department. 

Efforts should be stepped up to enable them as well as the many other thousands of refugees from other countries, to have good opportunities in life such as jobs, education, health care and housing.

The death of 11 people, 10 of who were migrant workers, in a landslide at a housing construction site in Penang, also brought to public attention the fact that most of the workers who build our houses and provide labour in many plantations are foreigners.

Adequate attention should be paid to their working and living conditions including compensation for worksite injury and death.

Last week’s Asean Summit adopted an Asean consensus to protect and promote migrant workers’ rights.   It is important to translate this into the country’s policies, laws and guidelines.