20 June has been designated by the UN as World Refugee Day to recognise the strength and courage of people forced to flee their home countries to escape conflict or persecution.
There are at present 179,570 refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia, comprising 154,840 persons from Myanmar, including 102,950 Rohingya and the remaining 24,730 persons are from 50 countries fleeing war and persecution including Pakistan, Yemen, Syria, Somalia, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Iraq and Palestine.
At present there are no legal or administrative provisions in place for dealing with the situation of refugees and asylum seekers in the country.
The de facto policy for refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia includes:
- Non-return (non-refoulement) to countries until conditions are conducive
- To work in the informal sector of the economy
- To access healthcare
- Allowing NGOs and charitable organisations to provide assistance
- Cooperating with the UNHCR on a humanitarian basis and allowing the UNHCR to register, determine refugees’ status and extend protection to refugees
- Facilitating the resettlement of refugees to third countries
This de facto policy has been ad hoc and inconsistent. There have been numerous reversals of the de facto policy that have affected refugees and asylum seekers negatively.
Anti-migrant and anti-refugee sentiment has also increased during the Covid pandemic. There has been a marked increase in xenophobic behaviour and hate speech against refugees. This has led to fear and anxiety amongst refugees and asylum seekers.
Recent reports of raids conducted on migrant and refugee communities as a means to curb the spread of Covid are inhumane and counterproductive. The raids will make the migrants and refugees to go underground, and it will complicate the national strategy of vaccination in the country.
Hakam also notes with concern that the UNHCR has not been granted access to enter detention centres since August 2019. This hampers the identification and release of asylum seekers who are being held in the detention centres.
Recently the home minister has been critical of several issues pertaining to refugees and asylum seekers, inter alia:
- The verification process of refugees and asylum seekers by the UNHCR
- The impact on local communities – including housing, involvement in crime, employment
- The slow pace of resettlement
- Issues pertaining to vaccination for Covid
The home minister has further stated that the government will review and issue a policy involving the foreigners to resolve problems that arise which have an impact on local communities.
- Hakam is concerned by the negative and anti-migrant and refugee positions taken by the authorities. Hakam states that the policy of the government of Malaysia towards refugees and asylum seekers should be based on human rights and humanitarian principles
- Hakam calls upon the government of Malaysia to immediately implement an appropriate legal and administrative framework for dealing with refugees and asylum seekers to ensure that their rights are adequately protected
The legal and administrative framework should include respect and adherence to non-return (non-refoulement) until conditions are conducive; the right to work; security from violence and exploitation; opportunities for better access to education; as well as access to affordable healthcare.
- Hakam calls upon the government to ratify and accede to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (1951 Refugee Convention) and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees
- Hakam hopes that the 2021 World Refugee Day theme “Together we heal, learn and shine” becomes a reality for refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia
Dato’ Sri M Ramachelvam is deputy president of the National Human Rights Society (Hakam)