"My journey started on a boat, I was in a refugee camp for a year, and I don't know how, but here I am on Hollywood's biggest stage," said a very emotional Ke Huy Quan as he delivered his acceptance speech for taking home the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in Everything Everywhere All at Once.
Yes, a refugee, on a boat, could go on to win an Oscar, an Olympic medal, or even a Nobel prize. So, let's think twice before we shoo them away from our shores as pariahs.
According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are 32 million refugees across the world, of which 4.9 million are actively seeking a place of refuge. I believe that Ke Huy Quan's journey, the story of Tasmida, a Rohingya refugee here in India, and the Gary Lineker vs BBC episode in the UK should give us pause for thought.
Ke Huy Quan's Journey
Quan was born in war-torn Vietnam in 1971, one among nine siblings. In 1978 his family fled Saigon as a part of the infamous 'boat people' exodus. Quan belonged to the Hoa community, a Chinese ethnic minority that faced persecution from the Vietnamese majority.
Many Hoa people chose to flee Vietnam, setting off on small boats (to avoid detection or being turned away), risking stormy seas and pirate attacks, much like Syrian refugees today, trying to get to Greece or Italy in similar small boats.
Quan's mother and three siblings reached Malaysia, while Quan, his father, and five other siblings reached Hong Kong. They were among the lucky 800,000 refugees who completed their journeys. The UNHCR estimates that 200,000-400,000 Vietnamese 'boat people' died at sea.
Quan's family spent a year in separate refugee camps. These camps were notoriously overcrowded, with poor sanitation and minimal rations. But back then, countries like the US, France, Australia, and Canada, got together and agreed to take in Vietnamese refugees.
Foray Into Hollywood
He got a few more roles while in his teens, but as an adult, he found that Asians had limited acting opportunities in Hollywood. He smartly chose to study filmmaking at the University of Southern California and then worked as a stunt choreographer on several projects. But he got bit by the acting bug again in 2018, landed a role in Everything Everywhere All at Once, and as we all now know, walked away with an Oscar.
From a seven-year-old kid on a boat, a refugee, to being embraced by another country and winning an Oscar at the age of 52! What a story. But… it has a happy ending because Ke Huy Quan was lucky enough to be a kid who was allowed to get off a boat and walk into and thrive in a new host country.
Every refugee doesn't get this happy ending.
Lineker's Criticism of UK's Asylum Policy
This brings us to Gary Lineker. England's legendary football striker (10 FIFA World Cup goals, including the Golden Boot in 1986) was recently dropped by the BBC as presenter of its flagship football show 'Match of the Day' – a show he's hosted for 25 years.
Why? For tweeting against the Rishi Sunak government's new asylum policy.
The focus of Sunak's new plans are 'illegal immigrants' crossing into Britain from Europe on small boats. Sunak claims he's targeting criminal gangs running human trafficking rackets via these boats, and is also trying to protect native Britons from having their jobs taken away by 'low-skilled illegals'.
But critics like Lineker are calling out the new policy as inhumane and in breach of international law and conventions. Many are also pointing out the irony of both Sunak and Suella Braverman, UK's home secretary, the main drivers of this new policy, being immigrants themselves.
Sensibly, the BBC has reinstated Gary Lineker, after facing massive criticism for trying to muzzle 'free speech'. But the points that he, and others have made, remain unaddressed.
A large number of the refugees on these boats are being brought into countries like Britain illegally, as part of a lucrative 'human smuggling' pipeline. But doesn't an 'illegal immigrant' deserve to be treated humanely? Don't we need to engage with the complex reasons that turn them into refugees in the first place?
From Vietnam, to Afghanistan, to Syria, to Ukraine – in countries that have been, and still are, the bloody playgrounds of global scale power struggles – why should refugees be left to fend for themselves? Shouldn't the world that has allowed, and even contributed to the mess in their home countries, own responsibility for these refugees?
And before we, in India, shrug and say, 'Not my problem', let's acknowledge that in 2022, no less than 683 of the 'illegals' on boats, who Sunak wants to turn away, were Indians.
Which should bring us to Tasmida, a Rohingya Muslim refugee from Myanmar. In 2005, when she was just six years old, she and her family fled persecution and state-sponsored violence.
Story of Tasmida
Tasmida spent seven years at an overcrowded refugee camp in Bangladesh, before being uprooted again and moving to India. Here, too, despite tough living conditions, she finished high school, got enrolled at Delhi University, and has recently become the first woman Rohingya graduate in India.
Tasmida's achievement is truly laudable. Not just because she's achieved this as a refugee, but also because despite playing host to thousands of Rohingya, India has made it tough for the community to live here.
Back in 2017, then Minister of State for Home, Kiren Rijiju, had declared that the Indian government considers all 40,000 Rohingya living in India as illegal immigrants, and despite over 16,000 of them having UNHCR identity cards, they would be deported back to Myanmar.
Since then, India has held a few hundred Rohingya in detention, and has even deported a few dozen back to Myanmar. Fortunately, mass deportations have not happened yet, but that constant possibility hangs like a sword over the community.
In August 2022, when Union Housing and Urban Affairs Minister Hardeep Singh Puri tweeted that Rohingya refugees would be relocated from slums to EWS flats, Amit Shah's Home Ministry was quick to correct him, stating that there was no such plan. The Home Ministry statement also took care to refer to them as 'illegal foreigners' – and not as 'refugees'.
The Rohingya have also been targeted and labelled as 'terrorists' by radical Hindutva leaders. In April 2018, when a fire destroyed 50 homes in a Rohingya slum in Delhi's Sarita Vihar, then BJP youth wing leader Manish Chandela boasted in a tweet that he was behind the fire. After a backlash, he deleted his Twitter account. Unfortunately, in recent years, there have been repeated reports of fires in Rohingya slums.
In a career spanning 16 years, Gary Lineker never got a yellow or a red card on the football field. He was clearly a model of fair play despite playing a very physical game at the highest level. Surely, such a man makes a fair point against Sunak's 'Stop The Boats' policy.
In the same spirit of fairness and humanity, and out of sheer respect and understanding of the fact that refugees need our support and not our suspicion, we must also back many more Rohingya refugees like Tasmida to succeed as guests of India. And that, surely would be the best way to celebrate Ke Huy Quan's spectacular Oscar win!