21 April, 2007

Kindness rewarded with ungratefulness and suspicion.

The story of the return of 5-year-old Muhammad Nazrin Shamsul Ghazali or little “Yin” must have touched many Malaysian and non-Malaysian hearts. Yet, the joy of his reunion with his family was marred by ugly suspicion.

This suspicion seemed unjustified given that they were apparently a simple and honest Myanmarese refugee couple who did what any caring human being would have done with a lost child whose parents could not be found. Although they were poor, the couple, who happened to be refugees registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), showed kindness to a child in need despite their own desperate situation as refugees.

According to the NST report of 15 April, Rashidah Nurislam, the 27-year-old mother of five, had saved the little boy’s life, snatching him out of the way of on-coming traffic, speeding along Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman.

She made the necessary inquiries of the child - about who and where his parents were. Unable to get any comprehensible answer from him apart from the word “besan” (bored), she did the next best thing she knew, which was to take him to their home until they knew if anyone was looking for him. More amazingly, this couple looked after him as one of their own children and took him to the doctor when they “noticed…a boil developing on his head”. For a couple with five children, in their circumstances, to treat a strange child with such loving care, is not just admirable but extraordinary.

For all this, and for handing the child back safe, sound and happy, to his parents, Rashidah Nurislam and her husband Abdul Rahman Dolirahman suffered unsubstantiated accusations - of abducting the boy and using him and their own children as beggars for financial gain – and were remanded by police. It is not known on what evidence these apparently caring people were arrested and detained. No media report says that they demanded any ransom for the return of the child, nor did they seem aware that any reward had been offered for finding him. They are just a poor, illiterate kind-hearted couple who happened to be refugees.

Aliran is aghast that some Malaysians and the police should reward such kindness with suspicion and view the couple’s action harshly. It is not only embarrassing to Malaysian society but exposes a growing anti-migrant trend in our country, which is blind to acts of humanity and kindness by foreigners. Moreover, the report seemed to imply that the UNHCR was protecting persons suspected of committing serious crimes in this country as couple had been registered as genuine refugees with the UN agency.

It is a known fact that the UNHCR’s mandate to bring refugees under its protection does not include protecting anyone guilty of committing serious crimes under national law or anyone guilty of “crimes against peace, war crimes and crimes against humanity” under international law (Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees 1951).

The UNHCR has continued to carry on its work to fulfill its mandate despite the difficulties posed by the Immigration authorities and the Ministry of Home Affairs, which appears to have an uncooperative attitude towards the UNHCR’s work. Throwing an implied and baseless accusation against the UNHCR reveals the same lack of appreciation shown to the Myanmarese couple who come under the Agency’s protection.

Although Rashidah and her husband did not take the lost boy to the nearest police station, as we would expect, it is understandable that being foreigners ignorant of our ways and fearful and apprehensive of the police, they still did the best they could for the boy. If the incident had taken place in their own country, they might have acted differently.

Aliran also draws the media’s attention to the magnitude of publicity given to this case in contrast to media coverage of the murder of a 7-year-old Chin Burmese refugee girl who had gone missing the day before her parents were due to be resettled in a third country. Her handless decomposed body was found a week later in undergrowth in Cheras (theSun, 29 March 2007). This harrowing incident, which is still under investigation, was not given the publicity it deserved. So far, the public still do not know if any suspect has been arrested or if a killer is still at large, somewhere in the Federal Territory.

The minuscule coverage given to this tragedy seems to indicate the priorities of the mainstream media, which for incomprehensible reasons, view this heinous crime as trivial and unimportant. To play down such a danger is against the public interest, it only creates a false sense of security amongst the Malaysian news-reading public. Therefore, trivializing serious issues affecting migrants and refugees is a disservice to the nation, as crime, like disease and death, does not discriminate racially or otherwise.Aliran urges editors of the mainstream media to rethink their role and priorities in the light of journalistic ethics and fair and truthful reporting.

It is the media’s duty to work in the public interest by exercising the right of free expression and information (Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) without fear or favour. It is in the government’s interest to be accountable, yet transparent and to build and preserve democracy in society so that issues of public concern can be freely debated in the public domain. Discrimination creates a false impression and endangers our society.

Aliran Executive Committee

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