DEEPA NAMBIAR, ASYLUM ACCESS MALAYSIA DIRECTOR
A lawyer walked into the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia with a refugee, and walked out a changed person.
Deepa Nambiar, founding director of Asylum Access Malaysia, recalls her life-defining encounter with a refugee from Iraq in 2010. A corporate litigator at that time, Deepa was volunteering for NGOs on the side when she met the single mother through a local refugee mentorship programme.
“I [meant to] show her around and support her if she needed any help. But she ended up mentoring me! She was my tour guide when we went to the Islamic Arts Museum — her knowledge and beautiful interpretation of Islamic arts, culture and religion completely blew me away. She taught me so much and made me realise that deep down, we all want the same things: a sense of dignity in our lives,” says the 33-year-old.
DEEPA NAMBIAR “It’s these small successes that really keep us going.”
Deepa was awed with how hard the displaced woman worked, despite not having a legal status, to feed her children, mother and sick sister. The refugee fret about the sub-par education her kids were getting and the safety of her family still in their war-torn home country, but she remained gracious and loving. Visiting her family always left Deepa well-fed and inspired. “While working on human rights projects with the Bar Council and NGOs, I knew that what I was really passionate about was human rights issues. And after I met the Iraqi woman, there was really no turning back!” shares the spirited lawyer.
Leaving corporate litigation to embark on the field of human rights law became an obvious decision. She initially set her sights on an international career — her foot was likely half-way through the door too. As a Fulbright scholar, she received the Master of Laws (LL.M) on international law and human rights law from Columbia Law School in United States, was awarded the Harlan Fiske Stone Scholarship, and was based in New York for the Permanent Mission of Malaysia to the United Nations — but she decided to stay.
She worked for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) while providing pro bono legal advice to the displaced group. In 2014, she led the launch of the Asylum Access Malaysia – the only local organisation focusing on improving refugee rights through legal empowerment and policy reform. “This was where my work was most needed.”
Besides directing the team, Deepa also works with stakeholders to refine policies on refugee protection. Sometimes, though, she feels like she is just fire-fighting. While Deepa credits the government for stepping up in its support for refugees, particularly Rohingya refugees, the root of the problem still stands – there are no policies or laws protecting refugees in Malaysia.
“As long as the laws do not recognise refugees as a separate category of people in need of protection, it will be an uphill battle. They will continue to live in the margins of society, at risk of arrest and detention, unable to report instances of violence, abuse and exploitation and unable to send their kids to school or to be able to afford treatment,” says Deepa, who also chairs the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network’s (APRRN) Southeast Asia Working Group.
Nonetheless, the fight is still on. Deepa is not picky about the victories she celebrates. A refugee getting a job is a win. Another getting a UNHCR card, which provides informal protection from arrests, is a win. A battered wife leaving her abusive spouse and get back on her feet is a win.
“We are always most proud when our clients managed to be resettled to the United States or other countries. It gives them a real opportunity to rebuild their lives in a way that they are simply not able to in Malaysia. Unfortunately, only 3% to 4% of refugees in Malaysia get that opportunity. But it’s these small successes that really keep us going.”