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Refugees and asylum seekers should be afforded respect and dignity

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On World Refugee Day — which is observed on 20 June annually — the Malaysian Bar reiterates its call on the government to uphold and respect the rights and dignity of all refugees and asylum-seekers in Malaysia.

Malaysia hosts a significant population of refugees and asylum seekers. Based on the statistics provided by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Malaysia, there are 179,570 refugees and asylum seekers registered with them in Malaysia. Refugees and asylum seekers are victims of persecution who are compelled to flee to foreign lands to seek refuge.

It is disheartening to see that the Malaysian government still does not expressly recognise the concept of refugees or asylum seekers. Recent reports of raids conducted on migrant communities as a means to curb the spread of Covid in Malaysia are not only undesirable but also may potentially create a situation that accelerates the transmission of the virus.

Refugees and asylum seekers often have to operate under the radar of enforcement authorities, and this makes them vulnerable to arrest, detention and deportation. This community is forced to fend for themselves and their families without legal protection, exposing them to exploitation. Their plight becomes even more apparent during the age of Covid, where everyone’s life has been upended.

Many refugees and asylum seekers have yet to be vaccinated, putting them at heightened risk of contracting the virus due to their living conditions.

In order to assist the government to better protect refugees and asylum seekers, the Malaysian Bar has been engaging with the UNHCR to seek holistic and comprehensive solutions. We understand the UNHCR stands ready to continue providing support to the government of Malaysia in its Covid response, including in the implementation of the Covid immunisation programme.

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It is also ready to assist in mobilising and reaching out to the refugee and asylum seeking communities, including through relevant communication efforts and community engagement, all of which are in line with the Ministry of Health’s vaccine preparedness communications plan.

Here is an example of support rendered by the UNHCR: At the request of the Malaysian Government, the UNHCR provided assistance in translating vaccine information posters and audio files into 11 languages commonly spoken by refugees. The UNHCR is also working with its NGO partners for community engagement and mobilisation to support the Ministry of Health’s efforts.

The Malaysian Bar repeats its clarion call for the Malaysian government to ratify the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, both of which are instruments of international law that recognise the rights of refugees and asylum seekers.

We also urge the government to act with compassion and humanity towards this vulnerable community by putting in place a suitable legal and administrative framework to properly handle refugees and asylum seekers.

Refugees and asylum seekers are people too, and deserve to be afforded dignity, kindness, and respect.

AG Kalidas is president of the Malaysian Bar

This piece is reproduced from here and has been edited for style only.

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