Group says Home Ministry’s “appalling” track record proof it can’t manage refugees

A controversial proposal to shut down the local UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) office and allow the Government to manage refugees in the country on its own continues to come under fire from critics.

The rationale behind the suggestion, made by National Security Council (NSC) director-general Datuk Rodzi Md Saad on Tuesday (Sept 6), is so the UN agency no longer issues UNHCR cards to refugees, a prerogative that has ticked off the Government as they have no say over the matter.

Human rights group Lawyers for Liberty (LFL) said the UNHCR plays an integral role in identifying refugees and asylum seekers that are in Malaysia as well as providing them with the necessary protection and social aid. 

“Despite the assurance of an existing ‘framework’ to handle undocumented migrants and refugees in Malaysia, the Home Ministry’s appalling track record does not create confidence in the said framework,” LFL director Zaid Malek said in a statement.

Zaid Malek

He noted that UNHCR cardholders are “constantly harassed” by the enforcement authorities and many have been detained “indefinitely and illegally” in immigration depots, actions which have been sanctioned by the Home Ministry and the Government. 

“The conditions in these depots are horrible and many children are reported to have died there,” he added.

Zaid also recalled the “merciless” deportation of 1,086 Myanmar nationals last year, despite the chaos of a military coup in Burma at the time and a temporary stay order issued in court.

“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,” he said.

He added that if the Government truly wants to deal with refugees through local enforcement, they must first ratify the Refugee Convention, without which, any replacement for the UNHCR in Malaysia would be viewed with distrust. 

“The protection of refugees and asylum seekers are not issues that should be defined as ‘foreign interference’,” Zaid pointed out. “(Instead), it is an acknowledgment of the suffering of those displaced due to war or strife and the responsibility to protect them from harm.”

“Not an unknown concept to Malaysia”

He also noted that this is not an unknown concept to Malaysia, which has expressed sympathy, international condemnation and even protection to displaced Palestinians and Bosnian Muslims in the past. 

Malaysia also has a longstanding working relationship with the UNHCR beginning in 1975, where both worked together to shelter Vietnamese refugees. 

Even more recently, both cooperated closely during the COVID-19 outbreak 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 (UNHRC), must embody international human rights principles not only abroad but also on our own shores,” Zaid added. 

“Shutting down the UNHCR will (also) undoubtedly damage Malaysia’s international standing and reputation.

“Therefore, we strongly urge the Government not to consider shutting down UNHCR in Malaysia, and to stop and abstain from this mounting hostility towards undocumented migrants.”

Meanwhile, refugee interest groups Alliance of Chin Refugees and Beyond Borders Malaysia panned Rodzi’s “external meddling” argument, saying this was “mind-boggling” as the UNHCR has an international mandate to protect refugees.

“If at all the Government wants to help, it has to dismantle all obstacles to ensure the UN organisation can do its job without interference,” they pointed out in a joint statement.

They also criticised Rodzi for lumping undocumented migrants and refugees under the purview of the UNCHR and claiming that these groups are “attracted” to Malaysia, saying the agency only deals with refugees and it has always been the “push factor” and not the “pull factor” which forces refugees to flee to other countries.

“We, therefore, hope that relevant authorities would stop making alarming statements and, instead, reach a consensus which ensures refugee rights are protected and they can live with dignity in Malaysia,” they said. – Sept 10, 2022


Main photo credit: AP

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