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Apr 19, 2021

In Episode 5 of Series 6, Todd is talking to Mahi Ramakrishnan. Mahi is a refugee rights activist and runs a non-profit organisation, Beyond Borders Malaysia, which works to promote and protect the rights of refugees and stateless persons in Malaysia.

00.00 – 02.55

Todd begins by inviting Mahi to talk about refugee issues in South-East Asia. She explains that there are approximately 500,000 refugees in Malaysia and that:

  • around half are from Myanmar
  • the Rohingya make up the largest refugee group
  • none of the refugee groups have any legal status in Malaysia, no rights to work, education or health care and are reliant on UNHCR for support
  • Malaysia has not ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention

02.55 – 05.25

Todd asks Mahi to say more about the situation facing Rohingya. She says she visited Myanmar in 2017 and describes her shock at the lack of racial unity in the country. She explains that:

  • prior to the 1960s the Rohingya were well integrated but the situation changed with the installation of the  military government in the 1960s
  • there followed mass migrations of Rohingya from Myanmar to Malaysia in the 1970s

(Note: The Rohingya were declared stateless by the ruling Military Junta in 1982)

Mahi says that there are currently 3 to 4 generations of Rohingya, in Malaysia and points to 3 specific issues for them:

  1. They have forgotten their culture
  2. Lack of access to education means that they occupy the lowest social classification in Malaysia
  3. Their community is characterised by a deep-seated patriarchy

05.25 – 09.50

Todd asks Mahi to expand on the issue of patriarchy and refers to her documentary film, Bou (Bride) which is about the trafficking of young girls into Malaysia to be child brides.

Mahi points out that while the buying of child brides is not exclusive to the Rohingya it is a central part of their patriarchal culture. She reports on the purchase of Rohingya child brides by men, via traffickers and suggests that parents are complicit partly because marriage offers a semblance of security to the girls given their lack of legal status (in Myanmar). The girls are in a precarious position, abandoned when they become pregnant and/or subjected to domestic violence and abuse.

Patriarchy is evidenced in the following ways:

  • young Rohingya girls are preferred by the men over Malaysian girls because they will be more obedient
  • girls are not allowed to attend school
  • parents control children
  • husbands control wives

However, she notes that women are beginning to organise and stand up for themselves and their rights, despite negative reactions from men.

09.50 – 17.15

Todd moves on to ask about the impact that Covid-19 has had on the refugee community in Malaysia. Mahi refers to the continuous influx of migrants and refugees, which has led to a xenophobic reaction within Malaysia. Initially directed at the Rohingya, but now it is more widespread, directed towards all refugees and migrant workers. She refers to existing socio-economic tensions along ethnic lines within the country and the focus of that discontent on the refugee community and points to the lack of a comprehensive health care plan to protect all groups against the virus, especially the refugee/migrant community. She says that lockdowns and movement controls have made life very difficult for refugees and undocumented workers to travel for work.

When asked about infection rates, Mahi reports that the majority of COVID infections are within the immigrant communities largely as a result of high density living conditions and the impossibility of social distancing at home and at work. She also notes high levels of infections in detention centres. 

Todd and Mahi agree that this feeds into a narrative that migrants are “bad” and need to be sent home.

However, Mahi argues that the problem lies with labour agents and corruption,which leads to the exploitation migrant workers, who lose their documentation and forcing them to live and work in high density unregulated environments.

17.15 – 20.57

Todd’s next question concerns the work of UNHCR, The World Health Organisation and the International Labour Organisations and whether Mahi sees any evidence of them working together for the benefit of refugees. She assumes that they have ongoing conversations but points to the need for them to work more closely with grass roots organisations and community leaders.

She goes on to outline the work of Beyond Borders Malaysia. 

  1. The principal aim is to give refugees a voice using art and performance as a vehicle and she references Refugee Festival July 2021,  which is used as an advocacy tool.
  2. It is involved in discussions with lawmakers re; basic rights to health care, education and work.
  3. It undertakes projects like the Livelihood Initiative which involves women cooking food for sale and sharing in the profits.

20.57 – 26.45

Todd asks how the Festival has been impacted by the pandemic. Mahi notes a number of difficulties:

  • the lack of freedom/requirement for permits to hold events at any time
  • the backlash against migrants frightened off some from participating

Mahi explains that in 2020 the Festival went online, and while that presented opportunities to reach a wider audience and involve more people from elsewhere including the Kurdish-Iranian journalist Behrouz Boochani, many refugees were afraid to take part. To mark this fact, Mahi had a fixed camera on an empty chair during a panel discussion. Mahi has passed the directorship of this year’s festival to a refugee artist and hopes restrictions will be lifted and enable it to take place in a physical space.

26.45 - end

Finally, Todd asks Mahi about signs of hope for the future.

In her view, the current Malaysian government is very difficult to work with. However, she says she will try to use existing legislation to allow refugees to work. She will continue to try to persuade the existing government even though the conversations are difficult.

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