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Asian Muslims cast a wary eye on Trump's travel ban

Indonesians and Malaysians fear growing discrimination from US president

JAKARTA/KUALA LUMPUR When Annisa Rochadiat made a recent trip to Japan, she was worried about whether she would be able to re-enter the U.S. The Indonesian national has been living in Detroit for the past few years, and this was the first time she had traveled outside America since Donald Trump took office as U.S. president in late January.

"My worries mainly stemmed from the fact that I'm visibly Muslim, who also happens to hold citizenship of a Muslim-majority country," said Rochadiat, who wears a hijab.

In the end, she was able to pass through immigration checks without any trouble. Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, is not among the seven -- and later six -- Muslim-majority countries against which Trump has been seeking an entry ban.

But that does not stop Rochadiat from worrying.

"To be clear, Muslim Americans have experienced discrimination -- and in some cases hate crimes -- before Trump became president since 9/11," said Rochadiat, who had been in and out of the U.S. before starting her Ph.D. at Wayne State University in Detroit in 2013. "It's just the magnitude and frequency have starkly escalated and increased since Trump won the election. His rise to power has apparently emboldened some people."

Trump's attempt to block citizens from Libya, Iran, Somalia, Syria, Sudan and Yemen from entering the U.S. has incited worries in other parts of the Muslim world, including Indonesia and Malaysia. An Indonesian recipient of the U.S. Fulbright scholarship said she and her fellow recipients planning to depart for the U.S. this year were "tremendously worried" that the ban could be extended to Indonesia, and that their scholarship funding might be cut or they might face discrimination.

UNAFFECTED, FOR NOW Although Indonesian and Malaysian nationals make up only a fraction of Asian immigrants to the U.S., it remains a popular destination for prospective students from both countries. But while those who may be directly affected by the travel ban have spoken out, official reactions from the two countries have been muted.

"We're not affected by the policy. Why should we feel worried?" Indonesian President Joko Widodo said, shrugging off local concerns. The U.S. is one of Indonesia's largest trading partners and a leading source of foreign direct investment, and Widodo is clearly reluctant to risk damaging those economic ties -- potentially under threat as Trump moves toward protectionism -- with what he deems unnecessary comments.

Moreover, observers have pointed out that Trump is not seeking a ban against citizens of Muslim-majority nations he has business ties with, including Indonesia, where Trump Hotel Collection is developing two resorts with local business partner Hary Tanoesoedibjo.

Nevertheless, about 100 protesters led by Malaysian opposition politicians gathered in front of the U.S. Embassy in Kuala Lumpur on Feb. 3 to demand the ban be canceled. Rally leader Saifuddin Abdullah said the ban would only fan antagonism against the West among radical organizations such as the Islamic State group.

"It plays into their narrative that you should not trust democratically elected leaders," he told local reporters.

COMPOUNDING A CRISIS Should the ban come into force, those most likely to suffer are refugees fleeing war-torn nations targeted by Trump's decision. Many of these refugees use Southeast Asia as a transit point on their way to settling down in the West, including in Australia and the U.S, but are now stranded in the region. There is also the swelling number of Rohingya Muslims fleeing persecution in Myanmar. Overall, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Southeast Asia currently hosts 2.6 million "persons of concern," a term that includes refugees and asylum seekers.

The U.N. agency said less than 1% of the world's 64 million displaced people have been resettled. Trump's ban, seen by many as targeting Muslims from troubled regions and by extension a huge number of refugees, further diminishes their already small hope for resettlement and better lives.

Suaka, an Indonesian nongovernmental group, warned of an "accumulation of refugees" in the region as a result of Trump's ban.

The UNHCR, meanwhile, said it is "concerned about the impact of the recent [U.S.] decision on ordinary people forced to flee war, violence and persecution."

Thomas Vargas, the UNHCR representative in Indonesia, said ongoing legal challenges in the U.S. against the ban means there has not yet been any impact on U.S.-bound resettlement processes.

But he did express concerns about the "trend" of resettlement destinations closing their borders. This has left developing nations in Southeast Asia and elsewhere to host the bulk of refugees, despite having scant economic resources to do so.

"Either you stop the wars or you allow people to have safety -- unless you have total disregard for human life," Vargas said. "Let's hope that humanity wins out."

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