Obama Visits Refugees in Malaysia to Highlight Global Crisis

U.S. President Barack Obama greets students during a tour of the Dignity for Children Foundation, an education program for refugee and low-income children, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia November 21. Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama visited a refugee centre in Malaysia on Saturday to highlight his call for more compassion at home to deal with a global migrant crisis, as Republicans seek to block U.S. acceptance of Syrian refugees.

Speaking of the children he met at the Dignity for Children Foundation in Kuala Lumpur, Obama said "that's the face of not only children from Myanmar, that's the face of Syrian children and Iraqi children".

Many of the children at the centre were Muslim Rohingyas who have fled persecution in Myanmar.

Alluding to Republican critics who are trying to halt the flow of Syrian refugees to the United States, Obama said: "The notion that somehow we would be fearful of them, that our politics would somehow leave us to turn our sights away from their plight is not representative of the best of who we are."

Obama's visit to the refugee centre came a week after attacks by Islamic State militants in Paris renewed debate over his plan to bring more than 10,000 Syrian refugees into the United States over the next year.

U.S. lawmakers have called for Obama to pause or stop the program altogether, citing concerns it could lead to infiltration of militants who could launch Paris-style attacks.

"Apparently they're scared of widows and orphans coming into the United States of America," Obama said on Wednesday in Manila, where he was attending the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.

He insisted that the process for screening refugees for possible entry into the United States was rigorous and said the United States didn't make good decisions "based on hysteria" or exaggerated risk.

60 Million Refugees

Obama told reporters on Saturday that one of the reasons he came to visit the refugee centre in Kuala Lumpur was "because globally we are seeing an unprecedented number of refugees" and Washington needed to demonstrate leadership on the issue.

"The world is already focused on the humanitarian crisis taking place in Syria but we can't forget that there are millions of other refugees from war-torn parts of the world," Obama said as he met with a small group of refugees at the centre.

Obama highlighted the case of a 16-year-old girl who sat smiling beside him. She fled Myanmar when she was eight and was being resettled in the United States, he said.

The U.N. refugee agency estimates that violence has displaced 60 million people across the world.

Malaysia, which is hosting 18 world leaders for a series of meetings this weekend, has taken in 153,880 refugees and asylum seekers as of September, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. About 90 percent of them are from Myanmar.

The Rohingya are a Muslim minority who have been denied citizenship in Myanmar and make up one of the largest groups of stateless people in the world. Militant Buddhists have targeted them in violence, helping to fuel their exodus from Myanmar.

They have been targeted in violent attacks by militant Buddhists.

The United Nations estimates that over 120,000 Rohingya have fled in the past three years, including an estimated 25,000 by boat this year. Thousands have been waylaid at sea and held for ransom by human traffickers.

In May, mass graves were exhumed at jungle camps on the border between Thailand and Malaysia that were thought to be mainly Rohingya victims of human traffickers.

Myanmar's former junta and the quasi-civilian government that replaced it say the Rohingya are considered illegal migrants from Bangladesh - even those that have been in the country for generations.