Every year on 20 June, the Malaysian Bar commemorates World Refugee Day to honour the courage of refugees escaping from their home countries due to a well-founded fear of persecution, including persecution premised on race, religion, nationality or political opinion.
The theme for World Refugee Day 2023 – “Hope Away from Home” – focuses on the power of inclusion and solutions for refugees. Integrating refugees with local communities would enable them to restart their lives and contribute to the host countries effectively. It is also the best approach to prepare them to either return to their home countries when the situation permits them to do so safely and voluntarily, or to live a better life if they are resettled to a third country.
There are 181,300 refugees and asylum seekers registered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Malaysia, as of end-May 2023. Of these, some 157,100 refugees are from Myanmar, while the remaining 24,200 refugees and asylum seekers are from 50 countries fleeing war and persecution.
Refugees are recognised as one of the most vulnerable people in Malaysia. Malaysia is not a state party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, which set out the basic rights of refugees as well as duties towards their host country. More importantly, the 1951 Convention is premised on the principle of “non-refoulement”, which means refugees should not be returned to a country where they could face serious threats to their life. There is also currently no domestic legal or administrative framework to protect refugees in Malaysia.
Refugees are not legally recognised in Malaysia, and as such they do not have the right to work legally and are often arrested, detained and charged under immigration laws even if they possess a UNHCR card. They are treated the same as undocumented migrants and are, therefore, subjected to detention for an indefinite period of time until they are deported to their home countries.
Refugees ought not to be penalised for the inevitable immigration violations committed while fleeing persecution, including for being unable to produce a valid pass or documents that could prove that they entered and remained in Malaysia lawfully. The deplorable living conditions in immigration detention centres compound the pre-existing trauma of refugees which has long-term consequences on their wellbeing, especially for detained children.
Poverty has been identified as one of the main issues faced by refugees, as they do not have the right to work legally in Malaysia. For that reason, the Malaysian Bar welcomes the recent Industrial Court decision recognising the rights of all workers, including refugees, which allowed a claim for unlawful dismissal and unpaid salaries. Nonetheless, such progress is but a drop in the ocean if these rights are only recognised on an ad hoc basis.
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Refugees in Malaysia struggle to gain access to basic healthcare services and formal education. Although refugees registered with the UNHCR are able to receive a 50% discount off the non-Malaysian rate in public hospitals, the cost of healthcare remains largely prohibitive for refugees who are not afforded the right to earn a living.
Due to insufficient documentation, refugees also have no access to formal education in public institutions.
The Malaysian Bar notes the recent efforts taken by the government, in particular:
- studying the possibility of allowing refugees in Malaysia to work temporarily in the plantation sector and
- considering an agreement with the UNHCR on its roles and responsibilities in managing refugees in line with Resolution 428(V) of the UN
On this World Refugee Day, the Malaysian Bar calls on the government to:
- Accede to the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees; and
- Adopt policies that are in line with Resolution 428(V) of the UN, including participating in drafting international conventions relating to the protection of refugees, ratifying them and adopting appropriate measures to implement them.
Among the measures that can be adopted and implemented are:
- Establishing a national procedure for the application and registration of refugees
- Issuing personal identification documents to refugees that reflect, among others, their refugee status; and
- formally conferring basic rights to refugees and facilitating access to work, justice, healthcare and education
It is time to establish a proper legal framework to adequately and effectively address the issues faced by refugees in Malaysia. It is incumbent upon all of us – whether or not we are in positions of power and influence – to offer refugees safe haven and assistance. We can and we must offer them hope.
Karen Cheah Yee Lynn is president of Malaysian Bar
This piece is reproduced from here and has been edited for style only.