Mathilda Ho (first from the left) and the organising committee of RAW 2018 at The Projector.│ Photo Credit: Arabelle/AFR-SG

No Man’s Land: Catalysing the Integration of Refugees

As the world celebrates the 20th anniversary of World Refugee Day, the founder of Advocates For Refugees – Singapore (AFR-SG) Mathilda Ho speaks to The IAS Gazette about her personal experience with refugees, AFR-SG, and what the general population can do to help refugees.

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Celebrating World Refugee Day

The year 2021 will mark the 70th anniversary of the 1951 Refugee Convention as well as the 20th year of celebrating World Refugee Day. The central theme of World Refugee Day 2021 is ‘Together We Heal, Learn and Shine’, with a focus on the power of inclusion – How, together we can achieve anything. 

The importance of protecting refugees has always been in discussion. However, current statistics are not dwindling nor is it optimistic. By the end of 2020, there were 26.4 million refugees worldwide. More than two-thirds of all refugees under UNHCR’s mandate originate from just five countries. In descending order, these countries include The Syrian Arab Republic, Venezuela, Afghanistan, South Sudan, and Myanmar, with a majority of refugees hosted in developing countries, struggling to fend for themselves. 

We sat down for an exclusive interview with Mathilda Ho, the Founder and Partnerships Coordinator for Advocates For Refugees Singapore (AFR-SG) and the Campaign Director for Refugee Awareness Week (RAW), where she shared about the genesis of AFR-SG, her personal experiences with refugees, and ways on how Singaporeans can play their part.

A 2016 panel discussion at the inaugural Refugee Awareness Week (RAW) at The Redbox hosted by Youth Corps Singapore. │ Photo Credit: Yee Hui/AFR-SG

The Genesis of AFR-SG

The inspiration for AFR-SG started in university, where Mathilda gained an interest in human rights that eventually led her to specialise in international development. She got to learn about refugees and how the topic was repeatedly neglected in Singapore, which spurred her research into refugee issues. 

“The Rohingya refugee crisis made me aware of how close the refugee issues are to Singapore”, Mathilda said.

At that time, the Singapore Government had issued a statement citing limited land space as a reason for not accepting refugees. Mathilda was studying in Australia when she heard the statement which disappointed her. She then decided to take action and visited refugees residing in Australia and later on volunteered with Amnesty International Australia.

Although she did not get to work with refugees directly, she told The IAS Gazette that through her experience with the organisation, she was “able to see how they’ve been able to mobilise on the ground and support these refugees effectively.”

She went on, “there were many retirees that I volunteered alongside with, and seeing their spirit in wanting to fight together to help their fellow human beings inspired me.”

It was through this experience that Mathilda developed a passion to get truly involved in refugee issues and change the status quo. This passion only grew stronger and AFR-SG was born in 2015. 

Inspiring Encounters

Her direct encounters with refugees were mostly through travelling hours to get to events where refugees would speak about their personal experiences. The campaign director for RAW 2021 stressed the importance of listening to individual stories to better develop an understanding of the various ways to work with these refugees.

“The media draws up statistics and words that tell you about the sheer amount of refugees crossing the borders, which tend to dehumanise them – but what I appreciate about these events is that I get to hear their personal stories, because only then can you no longer see them as an outsider.”

Mathilda’s purpose in starting AFR-SG was to bring about the awareness of refugee issues through three ways: campaign, research and partnership. In doing so, she hopes to promote a humane and dignified way when participating in the refugee crisis. 

Reminiscing on her first time in Jordan distributing supplies in one of the refugee camps, Mathilda said, “There was an elderly lady who tried to speak to us – we found out she had left Syria on her own, and all her family members had died. She was just really thankful that we were there to see her.”

“Before I left, she actually gave me a hug. I felt a lot of gratitude towards her for coming forward to share her experience with me, and so I really tried to be there for her and reciprocate her goodwill. These types of moments that I experience help me in a way by really seeing how much I can do for them.”

Through campaigns, AFR-SG seeks to inform and shape public opinion on issues relating to global displacement and spur collective action for good. 

When asked to comment on how a small country like Singapore should bridge divided opinions about the refugee crisis, Mathilda answered, “there should be a reasonable way to have the best of both worlds. It’s a whole process of learning and the work should be put in by both parties”.

‘Shifting the Mindset’

Mathilda identifies the biggest challenge to be “shifting the mindset”. She shared, “the thing about awareness is that it has to be an ongoing work” and that “understanding does not mean accepting or caring”. 

However, Mathilda strongly believes that the case of why we need to protect refugees has to be made. Unlike migrants who do have citizenship rights, “refugees are in the hands of the international community”. 

Conversations With…: features Ziaur, Rohingya Activist, the screening of Selfie with the PM followed by a panel discussion. │ Photo Credit: Nurasyikin/AFR-SG

AFR-SG hopes to soften the Singapore government’s position on refugees and asylum seekers in Singapore as well as the wider Southeast Asia region. 

Through focus group discussions and research studies, they hope to better understand, inform, and drive evidence-based policy recommendations. Additionally, AFR-SG also lends their support to legal aid organisations in the region. 

Mathilda highlighted, “the biggest issue regarding refugees is how government policies purposely exclude refugees and migrants”. 

“There is a lot that Singapore can do. It comes with building the network and knowing the needs of refugees,” she adds. 

She advocates for a stronger representation of refugees at international conferences. “The ones who know the needs of refugees best are themselves; who is to say that the decisions you make without the consultation of refugees will be helpful towards them?”

AFR-SG’s Impact

AFR-SG has been around for nearly six years. Since its inception in 2015, AFR-SG has been very active on the ground and connected with Member of Parliament (MP) Louis Ng. MP Ng has been active in parliament and often lends his voice to the group, raising questions about Singapore’s responses to refugee and humanitarian crises to the parliament on their behalf.  

In 2018, AFR-SG was accepted to the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network (APRRN) in their commitment to raise awareness and do more for refugees. Mathilda stressed the importance of international organisations, “APRRN is important because refugee issues are transnational.” 

AFR-SG reaches out to work directly with refugee communities through funding support and knowledge-building workshops pertaining to issues like menstrual health in countries like Malaysia and Indonesia. They have also distributed food and hygiene supplies in Jordan.

“It goes back to wanting to get to know them on a personal basis, and making assessments by speaking to the people on the ground first to understand the situation. We previously did menstrual health projects, and it started because I saw that there was a gap and an asylum seeker from Malaysia had reached out to us.”

Menstrual Health and Hygiene Workshop with women refugees at The Sisterhood Community Center in Indonesia (Photo is processed to protect the identity of refugee community members) │ Photo Credit: Nurasyikin/AFR-SG

Mathilda brought up how ground-up initiatives and individual efforts play crucial roles in networking. At the height of Covid 19 last year, a Facebook group approached AFR-SG wanting to donate money to refugees across the border by selling the masks they had sewn. 

It shows that ground-up initiatives do have an impact and “help can come in so many ways. So much can be done with the right resources.” 

However, Mathilda hopes that one day the dependence on NGOs like AFR-SG will disappear. 

“Refugees do not want charity or handouts. We need to see them as equals, not less than us. If given the same opportunities that we have, they can also thrive and succeed,” Mathilda continued.

She pointed out that the dominant relationship in the aid world of “donor and beneficiary” results from refugees not being given the rights they deserve and reinforces the idea of a saviour complex. “It becomes problematic when there is a dependency,” she explained.

“While funding is important and necessary in some cases, there are other ways we can contribute and therefore alter the relationship we have with the refugees.”

“I will encourage people to think about what they can give and how much they can give, and if they are willing to respond to refugee needs; that is even better.”

The need for new reforms 

Mathilda hopes that Singapore’s civil society grows to be bold enough to ask for change from the Singaporean government. “We tend to have a win-lose mindset, but with refugees, it can be a win-win scenario. There is a lot of literature about the good of refugees supporting the economy.” 

On the question of the ideal scenario for refugees to reside in, Mathilda believes that it is crucial to design inclusive policies for “refugees to participate in society” and “mechanisms to safeguard the refugees”. 

She also brought up the untapped potential of ASEAN and its lack of refugee protection. She thinks that ASEAN “needs to overcome the issue of non-interference” to work together to handle the refugee crisis. 

When asked about what she wanted to achieve going forward, Mathilda replied that she looks to challenge the argument that Singapore has limited land space to host refugees. 

“While Singapore has the right to decide who they ‘want’ in their country; Singapore has hosted refugees before, so why not do it again?”

To know more on how you can help the refugee crisis, you can check out:

Refugees and Displacement, Social Collab

RAW research project

Safehaven Singapore

Geutanyoe Foundation – Home

The Sisterhood Community Center – Home

For more information on AFR-SG, log on to https://afr-sg.com/

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The IAS Gazette is a news site run by undergraduates from the Singapore Institute of Management’s International Affairs Society (IAS). Founded in 2018, it traces its roots to The Capital, a now defunct bimonthly magazine previously under the IAS.

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