COMMENT: What should Singapore do to help stranded refugees?

Kirsten Han is a Singaporean blogger, journalist and filmmaker. She is also involved in the We Believe in Second Chances campaign for the abolishment of the death penalty. A social media junkie, she tweets at @kixes. The views expressed are her own.

A tragedy unfolded in the seas even as Malaysia and Indonesia played a demented game of reverse tug-of-war, pushing boats full of desperate refugees away from their territories.

Hundreds of migrants, many of them Rohingya from Myanmar, cram on to boats described as “floating coffins” in the hope of a better, safer life away from the strife and persecution they faced back home.

It’s not a recent problem. This crisis – a genocide, even – has been in the making for years. Violent conflict in Rakhine state grabbed the international media’s attention in 2012, but the status of Rohingya in Myanmar has been problematic for decades.

This is a problem that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has found itself unable to resolve, not least because of a founding principle of non-interference in “domestic affairs” that has led to member countries turning a blind eye to one another’s human rights abuses. In 2014, Myanmar held on to its position as chairman of ASEAN even as Rohingya men, women and children wasted away in camps with little food or medical attention.

Now the crisis is spilling beyond Myanmar’s borders. After some jostling, Malaysia and Indonesia have finally agreed to provide shelter for the stranded refugees. Thailand has also said that it will no longer turn away the boats. The three countries will be holding talks this week to find a solution.

Singapore’s response to the crisis has been no surprise; the government has taken the same stance towards refugees for a long time now.

“As a small country with limited land, Singapore is not in a position to accept any persons seeking political asylum or refugee status, regardless of their ethnicity or place of origin,” the Ministry of Home Affairs told Channel NewsAsia on May 15. It said the same to The Straits Times on May 18.

There aren’t any migrant ships bobbing just off our waters – not yet, at least – but this shouldn’t excuse Singapore from playing a part. We might be small, but we’re not exactly without resources. Also, our size appears to be raised only when matters grow inconvenient; how else can we be utterly incapable of providing shelter, however temporary, to refugees stranded at sea, yet still be planning for a 6.9 million population (and likely further growth beyond that)?

“Helping on” a boat full of refugees is not good enough when there is nowhere for the vessel to go. We cannot expect these migrants to float at sea indefinitely while nations point fingers at one another. These people need help, and fast: first food and medical supplies, then a safe space to recuperate. They don’t have time for us to finish this game of crisis dodgeball.

Huge amounts of money are being spent this year to celebrate the “Singapore Spirit” in our SG50 year. We’re about two weeks away from the opening of the SEA Games, which according to the official website was “conceived as a means to help forge strong regional cooperation, understanding and unity within the South East Asian community.” The star-studded ceremony with its elegant bird model and 360˚ LED backdrop will no doubt be spectacular, promising a “visual feast with heart”.

Yet wouldn’t all this pomp and circumstance ring hollow if we, both as a country and a region, were to continue to turn away from those who most urgently need our help and support?

I believe that Singapore can, and should, be able to resettle refugees in need of sanctuary. I believe we do have the space, and the resources, to help them make a better life for themselves; all we need is the will to do so.

But there is plenty else that we can do short of permanent resettlement, too. Offering a temporary shelter, with food and other basic necessities, is not beyond the realm of our capabilities as one of the wealthiest nations in the region. Singapore has been steadfast in offering aid to nearby countries in times for need – the AirAsia crash and the Nepal earthquake are just recent examples – and there is no reason for us to stop now.

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