Malaysia needs a law to cover refugees and asylum seekers

Sometimes 20, Sometimes 30 - It’s normal for refugees to live in small flats with up to 30 people, who may all be replaced the next week. For survival, they live wherever job opportunities take them - Photograph: UNHCR

Malaysians Against Death Penalty and Torture (Madpet) calls for legal recognition by law of refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia.

Currently, Malaysian law recognises only documented migrants and undocumented migrants; it does not recognise refugees or asylum seekers.

The response to refugees based on a vague non-transparent policy must end. The Federal Constitution places an obligation to treat ALL in Malaysia – including foreigners, refugees, asylum seekers and the stateless – equally, and such treatment in combating Covid is certainly smart.

Malaysia is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention – which makes it all the more important for the country to have its own law on refugees and asylum seekers, which will also clearly legalise the presence of refugees and asylum seekers in the country and determine their rights and obligations in law.

History of accepting refugees and asylum seekers

Malaysia has an impressive history of accepting and providing sanctuary for refugees, including Vietnamese “boat people”, Palestinians and people from Myanmar, Aceh and elsewhere.

In May 2021, 179,570 refugees and asylum seekers were registered with the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, in Malaysia:  156,000 of them were from Myanmar. Of those from Myanmar, 103,000 were Rohingyans and the rest were Chin and people of other ethnic groups who had fled conflict areas or persecution. There are refugees from 50 other countries, including Pakistan, Yemen, Syria, Somalia, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Iraq and Palestine.

The UNHCR figures may be low compared to the reality in the country.

Vague ever-changing policy inadequate and unjust

The Malaysian government’s response to date on refugees seems to be on the basis of unclear government policies, which are inadequate. One such policy seems to be a preferential treatment of undocumented migrants that have UNHCR cards or documentation, who will not be arrested as undocumented migrants and will be released from detention if arrested. What about those still being or not yet to be processed to determine whether they are refugees?

In the near past, Malaysia seemed to have accepted and provided for Rohingya refugees and asylum seekers, but this seems to have arbitrarily changed lately, when a poster by the national taskforce had the words in Bahasa Malaysia: “Ethnic Rohingya Migrants, Your Arrivals Are Uninvited” (translated). The prime Minister and the government of the day must explain, as currently no minister is specifically tasked with responsibility for refugees and asylum seekers. Tomorrow, Malaysia may even oust Palestinian refugees.

READ MORE:  Malaysian government must stop its regressive immigration policies

We recall in February 2021, when the Perikatan Nasional-Barisan Nasional-plus Malaysian government, despite a court order, proceeded to send 1,086 individuals out of 1,200 back to Myanmar – when many sent back could have been refugees or asylum seekers based on international standards.

Until determination of whether one is a refugee or an asylum seeker is made, no one seeking such status should be deported. A specific law on refugees and asylum seekers will have to cover applicants for refugee status.

Opposition parties’ position on refugees, asylum seekers and migrants?

In opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s Twitter account in 2020 June, a reply to his tweet reminds us that “refugees are among the most vulnerable people in this world that have fled their homes and country to avoid a well-founded fear of persecution because of their race, religion, nationality, social affiliations or political opinion”.

Anwar himself exercised this right of an asylum seeker when he sought temporary asylum in the Turkish embassy in 2008, and as such, he and Pakatan Harapan really should be for the protection of refugees’ and asylum seekers’ rights. Many of our politicians also experienced persecution under the Internal Security Act (ISA) and other laws and as such should understand the need for a law to cover refugees and asylum seekers.

Alas, when Pakatan Harapan-plus government was in power and even today, one is still unclear about the position of PH, PKR, the DAP, Warisan, Pas and the other parties on the issue of refugees and asylum seekers. Maybe the silence is simply a ‘strategy’ to not affect votes in the next election.

This is sad, as we expect these ‘alternative leaders and parties’ to clearly express their position on all issues affecting Malaysia, including on migrant workers, refugees and asylum seekers – and what they will do if we, the people, give them the power to govern.

READ MORE:  A Malaysia for all – including refugees

Equal treatment and rights obligations

The education and registration of births for these asylum seekers and refugees is also a major concern. A clear law will be able to overcome these problems, more so since it also affects many children, and Malaysia has ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1995. How many children of asylum seekers and refugees are denied birth certificates, education and other fundamental rights?

Malaysia, as a caring nation, should be different from some other countries in the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers.

The human rights commission, Suhakam, recently stated:

The government should commit to strictly observe the international principle of non-refoulement of refugees and asylum seekers and instead undertake to protect and provide the migrant and refugee community with the necessary assistance to be able to live their lives in dignity, able to seek work [and to have] access to education, healthcare and shelter whilst in the country.

In response to the Covid pandemic, where the government advocates the mass vaccination of everyone, it is foolish to just be vaccinating Malaysians, and not other foreigners or stateless persons who also now live within our communities. The Federal Constitution guarantees equality for all persons, meaning citizens and non-citizens in Malaysia. Article 8(1), states: “(1) All persons are equal before the law…”

Covid response failings: 14.5% brought in dead

It was shocking that Health Minister Dr Adham Baba recently revealed that 14.5% of Malaysia’s total 2,650 Covid fatalities involved those brought in dead (BID) as of 29 May (Malay Mail, 31 May 2021). One wonders how many of these were undocumented migrants (including refugees and asylum seekers), who fear arrest if they seek healthcare. One wonders how many more died from Covid and may be buried ‘secretly’ as they were undocumented migrants, refugees or asylum seekers.

READ MORE:  Are we doing enough to help Palestinian refugees?

UN must provide for food, board and medical care

In the past, the UNHCR provided food and board for these asylum seekers or refugees, but today this does not happen. Question arises as to how they will live, so naturally, many may be forced to work as undocumented migrants. Any country can allow entry and stay of refugees and asylum seekers, but the UN must cover this cost of stay including for healthcare and Covid vaccinations.

The UN’s failures force many refugees to work as undocumented workers, which may affect a state’s policy and even diplomatic relationship. Malaysia must also call for the UN to fully bear the cost of food, board and healthcare, as it had done in the past.

Madpet reiterates the call for the speedy enactment of a refugee and asylum seeker act in Malaysia, that will finally acknowledge that some undocumented migrants are in fact asylum seekers or refugees.

We call for Malaysia to be consistent with the constitutional guarantee of treating all persons (not just citizens) equally, more so in Malaysia’s response to this Covid pandemic.

Pending the enactment of a refugee and asylum seeker act, Malaysia must disclose a clear written policy on refugees and asylum seekers, including on the issuing of identification documents, the right to work, education and healthcare, and the registration of marriages, births and deaths and other relevant matters.

Madpet calls on the UN to revive the practice of bearing the cost of food, board, education and healthcare of refugees and asylum seekers, including the applicants of such status, in Malaysia and other countries. It is a global responsibility, and it is unfair that the cost have to be borne by just the receiving state.

Madpet calls on Malaysia to be caring to all persons in Malaysia, to respect the principle of non-refoulement of refugees and asylum seekers and to advocate for justice and human rights, even during these difficult times brought about by the Covid pandemic. – Madpet

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