Rodzi Md Saad, the director general of the National Security Council, has proposed shutting down the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ office in Malaysia.
According to him, the Malaysian government should instead manage refugees and undocumented migrants directly, without “foreign interference”.
The UNHCR plays an integral role in identifying refugees and asylum seekers who are in Malaysia as well as providing them necessary protection and social aid. Despite the assurance of an existing ‘framework’ to handle undocumented migrants and refugees in Malaysia, the Ministry of Home Affairs’ appalling track record does not create confidence in the frameworks.
UNHCR card holders are constantly harassed by enforcement authorities and many have been detained indefinitely and illegally in immigration depots – actions which thus far has been sanctioned by the ministry and the government. The conditions in these depots are horrible and many children are reported to have died there.
One recalls the merciless deportation of around 1,086 Myanmar nationals last year despite the chaos of a military coup in the country at the time. Thus, whatever framework that is in the works is highly suspect and cannot be expected to be up to international standards, especially when Malaysia is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention.
The closure of the UNHCR office would leave hundreds of thousands of refugees defenceless against domestic laws criminalising their very existence, and domestic authorities threatening to deport them to countries which are no longer safe for them to live in.
The protection of refugees and asylum seekers are not issues that should be defined as “foreign interference”; it is an acknowledgement of the suffering of those displaced due to war or strife and the responsibility to protect them from harm.
It is not an unknown concept to Malaysia, which has expressed sympathy, international condemnation and even protection in the case of displaced Palestinians and Bosnian Muslims in the past. Malaysia has also a longstanding working relationship with the UNHCR, beginning in 1975, where both worked together to shelter Vietnamese refugees. Even more recently, during the Covid outbreak, both cooperated closely to ensure the safe vaccination of undocumented migrants, which ultimately benefits not only the migrants but Malaysians as well.
Malaysia, having been elected to the UN Human Rights Council, must embody international human rights principles not only abroad but also on our own shores. Shutting down the UNHCR will undoubtedly damage Malaysia’s international standing and reputation.
Therefore, Lawyers for Liberty (LFL) strongly urges the government not to consider shutting down the UNHCR in Malaysia, and to stop and abstain from this mounting hostility towards undocumented migrants.
If the government truly wants to deal with refugees through local enforcement, it must first ratify the 1951 Refugee Convention, without which any replacement for the UNHCR in Malaysia would be viewed with distrust. – LFL
Zaid Malek is director of Lawyers for Liberty