Sunday, August 21, 2016

138 Myanmar detainees in Malaysia set to return home

Kuala Lumpur, Aug 7 (IANS) The first batch of 138 Myanmar nationals detained in Malaysia is set to return home on Monday, official sources said on Sunday.

The detainees, who have been issued Certificate of Identity, under the arrangement with the Kanbawza's Brighter Future Myanmar Foundation will return to Myanmar on a Myanmar International flight from Kuala Lumpur, Myanmar's Foreign Ministry was quoted as saying by Xinhua news agency.

At present, 2,294 Myanmarese nationals are detained in 11 camps in Malayasia, the sources added.

In March 2015, a Myanmarese Navy warship carried back 102 illegal Myanmarese immigrants from Malaysia who were kept at detention camps.

More than 400,000 Myanmar immigrants are reportedly working in Malaysia, of whom about 300,000 are legal entrants, while about 40,000 are illegal. The rest are involved in various processes for refugee status.

Myanmar authorities are cooperating with Malaysian officials to protect their citizens working in the Southeast Asian country as they are often targeted victims of violence and murder there.

In September 2013, Myanmar started recalling its citizens detained in Malaysia for working illegally there.

In Malaysia, 128,800 people effectively slaves, survey finds

KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 11 — Over 128,000 workers in Malaysia are employed in slave-like conditions and treated like livestock, according to the Global Slavery Index 2016.

The survey ranked Malaysia 50th out of 167 countries measured, with nearly a half per cent of the over 30 million population working in exploitative conditions described as “modern slavery”.

“[Modern] slavery refers to situations of exploitation that a person cannot refuse or leave because of threats, violence, coercion, abuse of power or deception, with treatment akin to a farm animal.

“For example, their passport might be taken away if they are in a foreign country, they may experience or be threatened with violence or their family might be threatened,” said the Walk Free Foundation that commissioned the report.

In the region, Malaysia was behind Singapore (130th, 9,200 people) in the number of workers considered to be modern day slaves, but ahead of Vietnam (47th, 139,300), the Philippines (19th, 401,000), Thailand (16th, 425,000) and Indonesia (10th, 736,100) The country with the most enslaved workers was India, with over 18 million, followed by China (3.3 million) and Pakistan (2.1 million). Luxembourg has the fewest at 100.

Over 45 million people across the 167 countries were in modern slavery.

Malaysia was also rated “CCC” in terms of government action to modern-day slavery, which is categorised as “limited response” as well as “limited support” for victims. The 10-tier ranking ranges from “AAA”, the best, to D, the worst.

According to the report, the majority of modern-day slaves in Malaysia — as with other richer Asian countries — were women and young girls who migrated work as domestic helpers.

“Inhumane treatment of domestic workers including starvation and sexual abuse was reported in 2015, as well as indicators of forced labour including extortionate recruitment fees, confinement to the place of employment, excessive unpaid overtime, withholding of wages and confiscation of identity documents,” the report said.

The spotlight fell on human smuggling in Malaysia and the surrounding region during a refugee crisis last year, when an estimated 6,000 to 20,000 migrants fleeing ethnic persecution in Myanmar and poverty in Bangladesh were left adrift in the Andaman Sea and the Straits of Malacca.

In what was dubbed a massive humanitarian disaster by the United Nations, the boat people were believed abandoned by their traffickers with little food or water.

Malaysia was previously ranked in the lowest Tier 3 of the US annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, but was upgraded to its current Tier 2 “watch list” despite the discovery of 139 graves and 28 human trafficking camps at Wang Kelian, Perlis, along the Thai border.

Lawmakers in both countries expressed suspicion at the time that Malaysia’s upgrade was to facilitate its participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership; the Tier 3 status would have prevented the US from entering a trade deal with Malaysia.

Myanmar begins repatriation of 2,000 migrants from Malaysia

KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 10 ― Beginning this week, the Myanmar government will be beginning the process of taking home some 2,000 of its people who have been detained for months in Malaysia, Myanmar Times reported today.

The whole process could take up to a month with at least 10 chartered flights, each carrying 130 migrants on board, according to the report.

“We have plans go through this repatriation process more than 10 times, chartering flights with more than 130 on board each time,” Myanmar’s labour and immigration ministry permanent secretary U Myo Aung was quoted saying.

Migrant workers from Myanmar were detained by Malaysian authorities, reportedly for various offences, including expiration of their visas.

However, the newspaper also reported criticisms against the Myanmar embassy for allegedly taking too long to approve visa extensions for the migrant workers, which led to their detention by authorities here. As such, they were unable to return even after their citizenship had been confirmed.

The Myanmar official was also reported saying its government planned to help the workers secure jobs after repatriation, though it was unclear if it would be in Myanmar or elsewhere.

The repatriation process is being funded by private donors such as MAI Airlines and KBZ Brighter Future Myanmar Foundation.

The process was supposed to start in July, but was cancelled due to lack of funding.

Last year, tens of thousands of Myanmar and Bangladesh nationals were left stranded at sea by human traffickers in Southeast Asian waters. More than 1,000 of them landed in Malaysia’s northwestern island of Langkawi.

The subsequent investigation into the human trafficking syndicate led to discovery of 139 sites mass graves at the north of Malaysia, near the Thailand border, where Myanmar refugees, mostly from the minority Muslim Rohingya community, were believed to have been held

Let refugees work legally — Lee Hwok Aun

The Rio 2016 Olympics is making waves for reasons glorious and notorious, but the carnival of sport has made one unambiguously positive statement with the first ever inclusion of a team of refugees. The athletic participation of nationally displaced peoples, alongside those flag-bearing for their homelands, serves timely notice to Malaysia to consider ways that refugees can participate more broadly in our economy and society. In particular, we should open up channels for refugees to work formally and legally. 

Refugees in Malaysia are officially prohibited from working, but circumstances force them to take up jobs informally, enduring risk and hardship just to earn income and support their families. The system also puts compassionate employers who employ them, or want to hire, in a bind.

Why should we legalise work for refugees? First and foremost, refugees are fellow human beings, worthy of the same dignity and deserving of basic needs. They have fled persecution, oppression, forced displacement, war, and other horrors, suffering unimaginable violations of human rights, equality and dignity. They are among the most vulnerable people in the world; it is incumbent on humanity to show compassion and extend practical assistance. Moreover, if prohibited from working formally and deprived of income, refugees will be driven to informal work, and possibly illegal, undesirable activities. 

Permitting refugees to work also stands to deliver benefits to Malaysia’s economy and society. Refugee workers often take up jobs than locals shun, and in being productively employed they contribute to national income. They also tend to migrate with families and are thus likely to a substantial share of their income in the local economy. Refugees can bring skills and knowledge, add diversity, and with their relatively younger age profile, contribute a demographic dividend – they can continue to be productive for many years and across generations. 

Of course, some concerns arise on the cost side – but the evidence indicates that refugee receiving countries by and large can cope. Will local workers get displaced? Evidence from the OECD countries, which have relatively more experience in extending work access to refugees, shows that such effects are usually modest in amount. Refugees’ usage of public services are also not overly burdensome; the OECD average is 0.19 per cent of GDP. In any case, public expenditures should also not be counted solely as costs. Education and health services help cultivate a more capable and dynamic refugee population. 

There is vast room for improvement in the state of refugees here. Such communities are already in Malaysia, and the majority are working informally because otherwise they cannot feed their families. The total number of refugees registered with the UNHCR is roughly 151,000. Of these, about 124,000 are of working age (16-59 years). Approximately three quarters of refugee households have at least one person working or looking for work – all in informal work arrangements with no legal protection. They are located throughout Peninsular Malaysia, but concentrated in Kuala Lumpur and Selangor (just over 60 per cent of total).

Not surprisingly, a UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) survey of refugees in Malaysia found them in dire states: 64 per cent find their economic conditions have worsened since arriving in Malaysia, 72 per cent believe lack of legal status is an impediment to higher income employment, while 42 per cent of households bear debt burdens. The Rohingyas and people of other Myanmar origin groups, who constitute the vast majority of refugees, are more likely to work in dangerous, strenuous and unhealthy environments. At the same time, they widely declare a willingness to work, including in plantations.

These conditions make for a compelling case that refugees should be provided the means to formal employment, on humanitarian and national interest grounds. Refugees, already residing in Malaysia, present an able and willing workforce that can work more gainfully and productively if granted formal employment permits, and that help alleviate our persisting labour shortage problems.

Most refugees are already working, performing jobs too onerous, elementary and unattractive to Malaysians. Even if more join the workforce, the impact will be minimal. Working refugees constitute less than one percent of total employed persons in Peninsular Malaysia, and if those who are not working enter the labour force, their number touches only 3 per cent of jobs advertised on, the Ministry of Human Resource’s employment portal. 

In terms of public provisions, the scale is similarly negligible. Malaysia does not incur expenses refugee resettlement or welfare payments. Indeed, the bulk of refugee-related budget is spent on placing them in detention facilities.

The Olympics come and go, the Rio torch will be extinguished, but the plight of refugees burns on.

All in all, there are multiple benefits and minimal costs to formally employing refugees in Malaysia. In line with the policy of hiring migrant workers who are already here and reducing the incidence of undocumented labour, it is only right, proper and opportune to channel more national attention and effort into actionable solutions for refugees.

* Lee Hwok Aun is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Development Studies, University of Malaya.

** This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online.

Malaysia working with UNHCR on more secure refugee cards

Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi announced that the new cards have been issued since June under the collaboration between the Malaysian government and UNHCR. — file picturePUTRAJAYA, Aug 18 ― The Malaysian government is collaborating with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to issue new refugee identification cards with high security features, Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said today.

Zahid, who is also home minister, announced that the new cards have been issued since June under the collaboration between the Malaysian government and UNHCR.

“The issuance of the card will go through tight screening steps. Therefore, the process of replacing the old UNHCR cards will take a bit of time.

“This move is intended to tackle the problem of the issuance of fake UNHCR cards,” he said in a statement today after chairing a meeting on UNHCR-related issues.

Zahid also said a joint task force will be formed in which the UNHCR and Malaysia will work together to register and issue the new cards, but said the process of determining refugee status remains fully under the organisation based on the UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol.

The joint task force comprised senior officers from the Home Ministry, the National Security Council, the Foreign Affairs Ministry and UNHCR, he said.

On June 21, UNHCR Malaysia representative Richard Towle launched the new card with better security features to overcome past weaknesses that allowed counterfeiting.

According to a New Straits Times’ report then, Towle had said the new card is backed by better biometric data collection, besides including security features such as 3D holograms and bar codes.

The UNHCR had also launched the UNHCR VERIFY-MY mobile application, which Towle said would enable local enforcement agencies or those doing UNHCR work to scan the “Secure Quick Response” (SQR) code on the new cards to verify their authenticity.

UNHCR’s Senior Protection Officer (Oversight) Michael Wells had said the old version of the card was easier to replicate, while the new card had one of the best technologies globally with a biometric scan of fingers, face and retina.

The NST had earlier this year reported that there are syndicates selling counterfeit UNHCR cards ― that are only meant for verified refugees and asylum seekers ― to illegal immigrants.

Monday, July 18, 2016

‘Give foreign child beggars access to schools’

Activist James Nayagam says it is part of Malaysia's obligation, after signing the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, to look after the interests of these children.

PETALING JAYA: Children of immigrants and refugees have no choice but to beg for their survival, according to child rights advocate James Nayagam.

“Malaysia has not signed the Refugee Convention so the foreigners cannot work here and their children cannot go to school here,” he told FMT.

“So what do they do? They need to live, and most of them can’t go back to their country of origin. The Rohingyas, for example, can’t go back to Myanmar because of the genocide going on.

“So their parents send them out to beg just so they can survive.”

The 1951 Refugees Convention is a United Nations multilateral treaty that defines who is a refugee and sets out the rights of individuals who are granted asylum and the responsibilities of nations that grant the asylum.

Nayagam pointed out that it was not the children’s fault that they were here in the first place as they were either unaccompanied minors or had come with their parents.

He added that though Malaysia has not signed the 1951 Refugee Convention, it has signed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which obligates the country to take the best interests of any child into consideration.

“What is in the best interests of any child is education, healthcare and registration in terms of registering their births.

“For these foreign children, we need to allow them to go to school and become useful members of society.”

He added that currently there were 2,000 children in immigration detention centres.

“If the authorities manage to catch these foreign child beggars, then what are they going to do with them? These centres are already overflowing and it is certainly not in the best interests of the children to keep them there.”

When contacted, Klang MP Charles Santiago agreed with Nayagam’s solution for the child beggars.

“Poverty is pushing them to beg. It would be helpful if the government provides financial support through NGOs to provide meals and clothing, including education for children.”

He added that in the long run, adult beggars could be employed as some of them had skills that companies can use.

“We have a choice. Provide skills and make them productive members of society or allow them to continue begging.”

According to a recent report by StarMetro, foreign child beggars have apparently been moving from their regular spots in Klang town to areas in Shah Alam and traffic light junctions at the exit to highways.

Shah Alam MP Khalid Samad told FMT that handling these children was not the responsibility of the state governments but agreed that something had to be done to solve the issue.

“We need to take them in and find out their details because for all we know they might be taken advantage of by illegal syndicates and so on,” he said.

He also agreed that it was important to look into the alternative of sending the children to schools.

“Once we know their details, there are several things we can do. Sending them to schools is one of the options because if something is not done for these children soon, then they can grow up to be thieves or terrorists or so on.”


Malaysian police arrested Zafar for illegal entry, and deported him back to Thailand, where he was arrested…for illegal entry… and sent to jail before being deported back to Myanmar (again). Knowing that he faced death back in Myanmar, he managed to convince the boatman to….send him back to Malaysia instead. After much struggling (including one more arrest, deportation, and prison sentence), he finally made his way to Kuala Lumpur through an agent.

But although he made it to Malaysia, Zafar tells us that he was deported, not once or twice, but…

He was deported from Malaysia for a total of… 12 times!

Yes, in the span of 7 years (1996-2003), less time than most of us take to finish primary school, Zafar was arrested, deported, and made it back to Malaysia 12 times, an average of 1.7 times a year. Every single time he was deported, he was sent to Thailand, and he made his way back via a human trafficking operation which he had to pay (prices varied from RM1200 – RM2150, depending on the trafficker).

If they had no money? Well…

“If we didn’t have money, they would beat us. In some cases, they even shot to death some of us with a pistol. They would threaten us to pay them all we had, or they would send us back to Myanmar.” – Zafar

In addition to risking his life just to pass the Thailand-Malaysian border, he also had to risk his life travelling from the border to KL, including hiding in the backs of trucks and being stuffed into car boots where he almost suffocated to death. He couldn’t stay in Thailand because it was too close to Myanmar, and Malaysia was his only hope for survival, enough for him to risk his life every single time to make it back into Malaysia.

He asked the UN for help when he was in Malaysia, but wasn’t acknowledged as a refugee

Zafar continued the fight for his fellow Rohingyans by establishing the Myanmar Ethic Rohingya Human Rights Organization Malaysia (MERHROM) in 1998. In the year 2000, Zafar approached the Malaysian chapter of the UNHCR for help and to request for Refugee status.

After listening to his story, UNHCR refused to acknowledge Zafar as a refugee because he couldn’t sufficiently prove that he was deserving of refugee status.

To be fair, it’s not that the UNHCR doesn’t like him or anything. There is actually an application to be recognized as a refugee, and Zafar failed the application process the first time because he failed to produce the necessary documents for registration (birth cert, IC, passport, etc). This requirement is especially troublesome for Rohingyans as the Myanmarese government revoked their IDs and documentations. However, after appealing to the UNHCR to review his application, he finally got himself registered as a refugee. But that’s not the end of his problems…

Unfortunately, because he’s a refugee, Zafar cannot own any property, business, or vehicle, secure a legal job, and has no access to basic amenities such as government healthcare or schools, even though he legally married a Malaysian wife. (His wife, his father-in-law, and himself had to beg the Registration Department with tears in their eyes multiple times in order to get married, and after being constantly rejected, a kind-hearted Perak mufti finally agreed to legally marry him and his wife under Islamic law, making their marital status legal).

In fact, a doctor friend from a local gov hospital told us a heartbreaking story about the plight of refugees in Malaysia who are not part of the “privileged class”:

“I have seen pregnant women who are already in the beginnings of labour being turned away from government hospitals because they couldn’t afford to pay and were not eligible for government facilities when they had no proper documentations.

I’ve overruled the medical staff multiple times and told them to get the OT (operating theatre) ready so I could save the mother and child. As to who was going to pay, that was not my primary concern.”- Anonymous doctor friend

This makes Mr. Zafar’s story all the more amazing. As an unrecognized refugee, he managed to set up MERHROM, have an income through a kedai runcit and gerai makanan (both under his wife’s name), bring attention the ASEAN and UN leaders as to the plight of the refugees, and even managed to help Malaysians when they needed it. (Fun fact: MERHROM raised and donated RM25,000 worth of goods to the Kelantan flood victims of 2015!) His efforts has also been internationally recognized, with organizations from Hong Kong, Korea, UK and the US inviting him over to give him awards, but he is unable to attend and receive such awards(and speaking engagements) because he doesn’t have travel documents.

There are more than 154,000 refugees currently in Malaysia, most of whom live without basic rights and protection. While most of us think it can lead to increased crime rates, this is actually not true. In fact, the UNHCR actually makes it a point to screen all asylum-seekers before accepting them into the country, and that those who commit crimes are not eligible for refugee status, so there is a huge incentive for refugees to follow the law in Malaysia.

In fact, according to our Deputy Home Minister Datuk Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar, only 1% of all crimes in Malaysia are committed by them, though he did also say that we shouldn’t make the issue worse by hiring them, sheltering them, or renting properties out to them. 

Mr. Zafar disagrees however:

“We’re not asking for sympathy or for donations. All we ask if that we be given a legal identity, so that we can find work to provide for ourselves, for our children to go to schools, and for us to build a life."

We have a lot that we want to contribute to Malaysia, and we love Malaysia, because she has provided for us a hope and a life again. I ask that Malaysians and the Malaysian government just give us a chance.“

What can we do then?

Well, we could write to our MPs to bring the matter of Malaysia’s treatment of refugees up to Parliament, andlobby our government to formally sign the UN Convention of Refugees. Additionally, you could also donate to organizations like the UNHCR or MERHROM (they need money and supplies like rice, toiletries, etc); contact themhere to set up a donation time that is appropriate. If you own a business, perhaps you could consider giving refugees a chance to be fairly employed in your organization as well. Together, we can work to make Malaysia a welcoming second home to those who have unfortunately lost theirs.

Three Burmese Migrants Killed in Malaysia

Three Burmese migrant workers were killed and one was wounded early this morning in Malaysia’s northern Penang state, according to local sources.

“They shouted for help when they saw robbers trying to burglarize a neighbor’s house, and then the robbers went into their house and killed them,” said Maung Zaw, a member of Penang’s funeral service organization.

He said that the three workers were killed at 6:30 a.m. When the funeral service team went to see the bodies, police informed them they would be unable to hold a funeral while there was an ongoing investigation.

Sources said the four victims, who were from Mandalay Division’s Pyawbwe Township, were stabbed in Penang’s industrial zone.

Hundreds of Burmese migrant workers live in Penang’s industrial zone, many of them illegal migrants, asylum seekers and refugees who work dangerous jobs in factories and on construction sites. Due to lack of proper documentation, they often face arrest, detentions and deportation by the Malaysian authorities.

An official from the Burmese Embassy in Malaysia who asked to remain anonymous told The Irrawaddy that the embassy would investigate the incident and issue a statement later this evening.

The official added that the killing was not prompted by religious tension, after it had spread on social media that the attack might have been related to strain between Burma’s Buddhist and Muslim communities.

Many hundreds of Burmese Refugees and Migrants have been killed in Malaysia for the past 15 years. 

After 20 years in a refugee camp, Burmese family starts new life in B.C.

A group of residents from Qualicum Beach, B.C. spent several hours at Vancouver International Airport on Thursday evening anxiously awaiting the arrival of the Burmese refugee family they had privately sponsored. 

Sitting on the ground at the arrivals gate the group of volunteers knew little about the people they were about to meet. 

"We know that there is eight people — five children and three adults. We know that they're coming from a refugee camp in Thailand and we know that they wanted to come to Canada. That is all we know," said Carol Doering, one of the volunteers.

Interpreter Hserchri Trawgaye explains to the refugee family what is happening and where they will go next. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

"We're here wondering what they'll be like and they're probably thinking what we are going to be like" said Doering. 

"I feel apprehensive, nervous, excited and curious about what will happen next and concerned for the family that this will be such an overwhelming process for them," said Chris Ferris, another volunteer and Qualicum Beach resident. 

The youngest in the family is 4 years old and could not stop smiling after receiving a Canadian flag and stuffed animal. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

The Burmese refugee family of Karen ethnicity had spent 20 years living at Mae La refugee camp in Thailand. The children aged four to 16 were all born inside the camp.

The camp was established in 1984 after thousands of villages were burned to the ground during an armed conflict and ethnic persecution by the Burmese government. 

"The children will have no experience outside of a jungle camp. Never seen much in terms of vehicles, airplanes, concrete buildings, glass towers, people," said Doering. 

The children hold a banner that reads 'Welcome to Canada' in the refugee family's language (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

Finally, the refugee family walked through the gates and soon enough the nerves from both sides were replaced with hello's and introductions. 

The volunteers introduced themselves through an interpreter and handed Canadian flags and stuffed animals to the children. 

Speaking through interpreter Hserchri Trawgaye — who is also from Burma and lived in a refugee camp in Thailand — the mother of the young children said they are very happy to be in Canada.

When asked what it was like to fly on an airplane, she described it as being in a house that is flying. 
What to do in Qualicum Beach? 

The refugee family will spend the night in Vancouver before taking a ferry over to Qualicum Beach, a town located on Vancouver Island with a population of almost 9,000 people. 

"I think they will feel at home there," said Doering. 

Qualicum Beach is a smaller community that is not often a go-to place for refugees and it also the oldest population of any community in Canada. 

"Definitely they're coming to a community that is known for its retirement scene," she said. 

Hserchri Trawgaye lives in Vancouver but is originally from Burma and also lived in a refugee camp in Thailand. She will follow the family to Qualicum Beach to help them settle in. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

But Doering hopes the green scenery of the town will make the family feel at home. 

After the family has settled in, the focus will be on teaching them English and helping them adjust to life in Canada, which may include anything from teaching them how to use a stove or go grocery shopping. 

"I hope they just try and be a family. Walk around, feel a sense that there is no barbed wires. You can walk the streets, you're safe," said volunteer Anna Grieve. 

The children will be attending school come September and the parents will be given an opportunity to work at a Thai restaurant or work on a farm, as they have in the past. 
It all started with a house

The entire journey began in January, when the town of Qualicum Beach put out a request for ideas on what to do with a former RCMP station that was sitting empty. 

Chris Ferris and her husband came up with the idea to use the house for a refugee family. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

"We were out walking by the house and thought, maybe the town would be interested in giving that house to refugees," said Chris Ferris, who came up with the idea with her husband one night. 

After a town meeting was held the plan was approved and the sponsorship process began. 

Volunteers and residents of Qualicum Beach get the house ready for the refugees to move into once they arrive. (Qualicum Refugee Sponsorship Group/Facebook)

But the volunteer group was expecting a Syrian refugee family, not a family from Burma, also known as Myanmar. 

"I think that was everyone's expectation because that's what was in the news and you didn't hear about other families," said Doering, adding that the group wasn't really concerned about where the family would be from. 

The refugee family will be able to live at the house rent free for 18 months, with the volunteer group covering the cost of utilities.

UN Conducts Last Call for Burmese Refugees Hoping to Resettle in US

RANGOON — The United Nation’s (UN) refugee agency, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), is conducting a “last call” resettlement initiative for Burmese refugees living in Thailand who wish to resettle in the United States.

The initiative will allow unregistered refugees to reunite with their immediate families in the United States. Typically, refugees who have not registered with the UNHCR are not eligible for third country resettlement.

“This is a one-time exercise taking place only in July,” said UNHCR senior field coordinator Iain Hall.

“It is a last chance for a previously identified group of individuals who had already indicated interest in joining their immediate families in the US,” he said.

The initiative is being carried out in nine camps in Thailand where an estimated 120,000 Burmese refugees live. The UNHCR will prepare a submission to the Thai government for their consideration; however, this initiative is not part of the refugee repatriation process, according to the agency.

Hall said that the purpose of this activity was to reconfirm their intention to resettle, but the process does not guarantee their registration by the Thai government and therefore does not guarantee resettlement.

Eligible unregistered refugees are those whose immediate family members—such as spouses or minor children—were registered refugees who resettled in the US group resettlement program that ended in 2013.

Vivian Tan, a UNHCR spokeswoman, told The Irrawaddy that registered refugees could still apply for resettlement, but that interest in third country resettlement had declined in this group over the years.

MEF: Employment for refugees - comprehensive study and framework needed

KUALA LUMPUR: Any proposal to allow refugees to work in this country requires a comprehensive study and framework as it has the potential of giving rise to new problems.

Malaysian Employers Federation (MEF) executive director, Datuk Shamsuddin Bardan said if refugees were allowed to work legally in the country, it might result in more refugees coming here.

Thus, he said, an inclusive solution to address the issue of refugees' employment was needed without compromising the humanitarian aspects.

"We are worried, if we allow them (refugees) to work here legally, it will contribute to the influx of refugees and migrants into this country, and it will surely create new problems," he told Bernama when contacted today.

Currently, there are some 151,560 refugees and asylum-seekers registered with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in Malaysia.

Malaysia is not a state party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its Protocol, thus the country does not recognise the refugees' status including the right of working.

"Based on the existing law, it is an offence for an employer to employ any refugee and legal action can be taken against the employer," said Shamsuddin.

"They (refugees) are productive and disciplined workers. That is why we see many companies willing to hire them.

"We understand that if the refugees are not given the chance to work, they will opt to work illegally and this will create new social problems and of course we don't want this ... that is why a solution is needed fast," he said.

Universiti Malaya's Department of Development Studies senior lecturer, Dr Lee Hwok Ann said if the refugees were not allowed to work formally in the country, it could drive them to illegal and undesirable activities.

He said employment of refugees would bring benefits to the economy of the country and help fill vacancies, especially jobs that the locals shunned.

"Employing refugees can generate significant benefits like new skills and knowledge, add diversity and at the same time, contribute to the national income," he said. — Bernama

TBHF donates $150,000 to support Rohingya, Iraqis

SHARJAH: The Big Heart Foundation (TBHF) a Sharjah-based global humanitarian charity dedicated to helping refugees and people in need worldwide, has donated Dhs550,000 ($150,000) to support Rohingya refugees in Malaysia and displaced people in Iraq.

Distributed by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, UNHCR, the funds will be used to help overcome the recipients’ challenging circumstances and difficult living conditions.

Approximately $82,000 of the donation will go towards helping displaced people in Iraq, with $68,000 given to assist Rohingya refugees in Malaysia. Coinciding with Eid Al Fitr, the organisers of THBF’s humanitarian contribution say that it is being given to help inspire optimism and hope in those who have been forced to leave their homes through conflict or persecution and to share with them the blessings of Eid.

"TBHF's cash donations are made in line with the vision of the wife of the Ruler of Sharjah, Her Highness Sheikha Jawaher Bint Mohammed Al Qasimi, Chairperson of the Big Heart Foundation, and UNHCR Eminent Advocate for Refugee Children, to improve the living conditions of refugees worldwide and enable them to lead a life of dignity. We sought through this donation to support these vulnerable people living under extremely difficult circumstances and to share the joy of Eid with them," said Mariam Al Hammadi, Director of Salam Ya Seghar, a TBHF initiative to improve the welfare of refugee children.

Speaking about Rohingya refugees in Malaysia, Al Hammadi said: "The Big Heart Foundation is committed to alleviating the suffering of Rohingya refugees who are living under extremely challenging conditions. This is not the first time that the foundation has made a donation towards them. 

In July 2015, The Big Heart Foundation donated Dhs1 million to support UNHCR's efforts in assisting these displaced people, following the rise in the number of Rohingyas leaving Myanmar because of violence and persecution."

She continued: "Sheikha Jawaher has reiterated her commitment to closely following up the issue of Myanmar refugees, especially children, who according to UNHCR data account for 20 percent of the total refugees in Malaysia. She also underlined the need to reunite children who have been separated from their parents, in addition to urgently providing them with education and healthcare."

During the visit of His Highness Dr Sheikh Sultan Bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, Supreme Council Member and Ruler of Sharjah, and Sheikha Jawaher Al Qasimi to UNHCR's Harmony Refugee Learning Centre in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur in May, Her Highness pledged through the Big Heart Foundation and in coordination with UNHCR to explore new mechanisms and expand the scope of services provided to refugees, so as to ensure their fundamental rights.

With respect to Iraq, Al Hammadi highlighted that there are nearly 120,000 internally displaced persons living in 12 camps in Dohuk Governorate and cited reports that indicate that the capacity of these camps is not sufficient to host all the internally displaced people. She stated that outside of these camps, the majority of displaced persons are scattered in hundreds of informal slum dwellings that lack basic standards to provide for decent living, which only adds to the ordeal they have already endured.

In June 2015, Sheikha Jawaher launched TBHF to coincide with World Refugee Day. It followed the decision issued by her to transform what was then The Big Heart Campaign into a global humanitarian foundation. The move was aimed at redoubling efforts to help refugees and people in need worldwide, with the new foundation adding significantly to the UAE's rich portfolio and long record of humanitarian initiatives regionally and globally.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (the commission) aligns itself with others in expressing serious concerns over the exacerbating global refugee crisis. In the wake of escalating violence, turmoil and armed conflict plaguing many parts of the world, millions of people, many of whom are women and children, are adversely affected and become refugees.

They are forced to flee their homes and cross international borders and deep seas, risking their lives in pursuit of safety and survival. Thousands of them die in the process.

In commemorating World Refugee Day, which falls on June 20, the commission pays tribute to the courage and determination demonstrated by refugees and asylum seekers all over the globe. The trials and tribulations endured by them to escape persecution and life-threatening circumstances in their home countries are unspeakable, and their strength and perseverance in overcoming such difficult situations deserve recognition.

However, recognition alone will do very little to improve the plight of refugees. Concrete actions must be taken not only to mitigate the predicaments faced by them but also to safeguard their human rights and to address the root causes that lead to their unfavourable situation in the first place.

According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are some 154,140 refugees and asylum seekers registered with UNHCR in Malaysia, as of April 2016. UNHCR Malaysia states that 139,780 are from Myanmar comprising mainly Rohingyas and Chins, while 14,370 are from other countries including Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine.

The commission observes that refugees and asylum seekers are among the most vulnerable to human rights abuses in the country. They also face discrimination and ill-treatment on a regular basis. As Malaysia is not party to the Convention and Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees, the government does not officially recognise the status of refugees, rendering them without any legal or immigration status.

As a result, refugees and asylum seekers, in particular those who are not yet registered with UNHCR, remain vulnerable to arrests for immigration offences and may be subject to repeated detention and charges, which may carry sentences of imprisonment and/or whipping. Even more alarming is the detention of refugee children including unaccompanied minors in immigration detention centres.

In addition, the enjoyment of their right to education, healthcare and employment are often impeded due to their lack of status, among other factors, leaving many of them destitute and trapped in the cycle of poverty. While refugees holding the UNHCR card have access to public healthcare services at a discounted fee, many still cannot afford the services on account of their low, and at times, irregular wages.

Positive steps

The commission acknowledges some positive steps taken by the government in addressing the refugee issue in the country including the administrative arrangement established between the government and UNHCR, under which a directive has been issued to provide guidance to the authorities on the handling of refugees in Malaysia.

In 2015, the government announced its proposal to allow Rohingya refugees to seek employment through a pilot project, which will focus on certain market sectors. Furthermore, the government also announced in December 2015 that it would accept 3,000 Syrian refugees over a period of three years and offer them shelter, employment and access to education for the children while they reside in Malaysia temporarily.

In this regard, the commission recommends that access to shelter, employment and education are not granted exclusively to a certain group of refugees only but are extended to other refugees as well. The commission stresses the need for the government to attach greater importance to the refugee situation in the country and adopt a more receptive stance towards ensuring that the fundamental human rights of refugees and asylum seekers are protected and fulfilled.

To this end, the commission repeats it’s urging for the government to accede to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention.

Finally, in support of the UNHCR’s ‘Stand #WithRefugees’ campaign, which will be launched on June 20, 2016, the commission encourages the Malaysian public to sign the #WithRefugees petition. The petition, which will be presented to the UN Headquarters in New York ahead of the UN High Level Meeting on Refugees and Migrants on Sept 19, requests governments to:

i. Ensure every refugee child gets an education.
ii. Ensure every refugee family has somewhere safe to live.
iii. Ensure every refugee can work or learn new skills to make a positive contribution to their community.

UNHCR’s new refugee card has holograms, bar codes

A sample of the new UNHCR card.

KUALA LUMPUR: A new identity card issued by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) can be verified with a smartphone.

The verification can be done with any Android or iPhone via the Secure Quick Response (SQR) code.

The new card includes a number of enhanced security features, including 3D holograms and bar codes.

It is supported by enhanced biometric data collection at the UNHCR office.

“The card we started using today probably has highest level of inte­grity of any card we use globally,” said UNHCR Malaysia representative Richard Towle during the card’s launching yesterday.

He hoped the card would see a new level of cooperation between UNHCR and the Government.

All newly-registered refugees will receive the new card. Old cardhol­ders will migrate to it when their card renewal date comes up. A card is valid for one to three years.

The first card was issued yesterday in front of officials from go­vernment agencies and media outlets.

Towle stressed that the card was issued on the basis of need.

“They have to be able to show us that they have a real need for protection against persecution if they go home,” he said.

As of last month, there were 151,560 refugees and asylum seekers registered with UNHCR in Malaysia.

More than 90% of them are from Myanmar while the rest are from Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Palestine and Iran.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has begun issuing new identification cards with enhanced security features for refugees in Malaysia in a bid to combat identity fraud and the use of counterfeit documentation.

UNHCR’s representative to Malaysia, Richard Towle, told Anadolu Agency on Tuesday that the new cards come with a card verification application and advanced features such as 3D holograms and barcodes and a large Secure Quick Response (SQR) code.

"The card [is] also supported by an enhanced biometric data collection at the UNHCR office," he said.

"UNHCR has launched an application named UNHCR VERIFY-MY, to enable law enforcement authorities or others engaged in UNHCR's protection and assistance work to scan the SQR and verify a card's authenticity," he added.

The introduction of the cards comes at a time when several media reports have exposed syndicates offering fake UNHCR cards to illegal immigrants in Malaysia, especially those from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Indonesia.

The syndicates were reportedly operating in capital Kuala Lumpur and other major cities across the country, selling fake cards for up to 170 ringgit ($42) each.

Malaysia currently hosts one of the largest urban refugee populations in the world.

As of 2014, some 146,020 refugees and asylum seekers had been registered with the UNHCR in Malaysia, of which the vast majority -- 135,000 -- are from Myanmar.

The vast majority of them are ethnic Chin, Rohingya and other Myanmar Muslims.

Malaysia had stressed its unwillingness to become party to the UN’s 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol.

The country has remained steadfast against inking the convention, while expressing its commitment to continue extending assistance to refugees from the Middle East and the Rohingya Muslim minority who fled Myanmar.

Myanmar nationals make up eighth-largest refugee group: UN

Nearly 1 million Myanmar citizens were forced from their homes, or remained displaced, in 2015, according to a UN report released yesterday.

Refugees from Myanmar made up the eighth-largest refugee group in the world last year.

More than 451,000 people who fled Myanmar were without permanent homes and another 451,000 were displaced within the country by the end of last year, the UN refugee agency’s report “Global Trends Forced Displacement in 2015”.

“Most of the refugees are the result of conflicts between different [armed] groups,” said President’s Office director U Zaw Htay. “The new government is focused on the peace process … and fixing the refugee situation is a very important part of the peace process.”

Thousands were displaced after fighting broke out in northern Shan State in February and March, according to a report from the UN earlier this year.

More refugees from Myanmar than from anywhere else in the world were resettled to another country in 2015, the UN report said.

Last year, 19,500 Myanmar refugees were resettled across the world. Malaysiatook on the bulk of those refugees. South Korea allowed 22 Kayin refugees, who had been living in camps in Thailand, to join their country last year, according to a United Nations report released in December. Other Myanmar refugees have resettled in the United States Australia, and elsewhere.

In the Asia and Pacific region, only Afghanistan saw more people displaced (2.7 million) last year, according to the report, which combines the UN’s data with information supplied by governments and partner agencies.

On the same day the UN’s report was released, Myanmar state media ran a story about incidents of human trafficking occurring in displacement camps set up in Laiza, Kachin State, along the Chinese border. Internally displaced persons (IDPs) living within the Kachin Independence Army-controlled area often cross into China looking for work. But about five times a year these refugees, mainly girls and women, are captured by human traffickers, sold, and then forced to have children and to work all day, the state-media account said.

Muslim refugees from Rakhine State left in record numbers last year, taking to overcrowded boats moored by human traffickers. The UNHCR estimated over 33,600 people travelled the well-worn smuggling route from the Bay of Bengal to the Andaman Sea in 2015, a 34 percent rise from the previous year. More than 370 people died along the journey.

Last year was the worst year for displacement in recorded history, according to the UN report. More than 65 million people worldwide were forced from their homes by the end of 2015. The war in Syria was the world’s leading cause of displacement.

Myanmar refugees face tough choices in Thailand

MAE LA/THAILAND, 20 June 2016
The aroma of roasting coffee beans filters through Jladdy’s hut, nestled into a jungle-covered hill in the Mae La refugee camp in northern Thailand. Crouched over the roasting tin, he laughs when he recalls his arrival more than 20 years ago.

“I thought we would stay here for a week, not years,” says Jladdy, who fled across the border in 1994 when government soldiers arrived in his ethnic Karen village in Myanmar.

He is one of 105,261 refugees from Myanmar that the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, says remain in nine camps in Thailand after escaping the ethnic wars that have bedevilled their home country for six decades. Their long stay in Thailand may now be coming to an end.

Myanmar’s new government has told IRIN it will soon announce a plan to repatriate the refugees in Thailand. This plan is timely as international donations and resettlement spots in other countries are drying up due to other refugee crises around the world.

Zaw Htay, a spokesman for the office of President Htin Kyaw, said the plan will be made public after Foreign Minister and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi visits the refugee camps later this week “to find out more about their issues, difficulties, and concerns”.

“Wait for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to visit, and we will announce more after that,” he told IRIN.

Big changes, little trust

Aung San Suu Kyi is likely to discover that the refugees do not want to go home – at least not yet.

The past few years have seen historic changes in Myanmar. After almost half a century of unbroken military rule, the generals running the country initiated sweeping political and economic reforms in 2011. Once persecuted and imprisoned for their struggle against the military, Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party swept elections last November and now run the government.

The reforms have their limits, however. The constitution drafted by the military in 2008 grants a quarter of parliamentary seats to serving officers, as well as control over key ministries. 

The military also retains leadership over the peace process, which is meant to resolve conflicts with about two dozen ethnic armies. Only eight of the 15 groups invited to sign a “nationwide ceasefire agreement” last October did so, while scores were excluded. Fighting still rages in many ethnic areas where government troops are accused of committing abuses against civilians.

“I cannot trust what Aung San Suu Kyi says, as the military also has power,” said Jladdy. 

The Karen National Union, which fought the ethnic Bama-dominated military, did sign the ceasefire agreement, and fighting has stopped in Jladdy’s homeland of Karen State. But that provides little reassurance in the long term.

“In my opinion, in the future there will be more war,” he said. “It won’t be better.” 

David Doyle/IRIN
Jladdy outside his home in Mae La camp for Myanmar refugees in Thailand

Many refugees share that scepticism, according to a survey carried out by UNHCR in 2014. Most respondents said they did not want to return to Myanmar, instead preferring to stay in Thailand or be resettled to a different country.

“Words alone won’t encourage people,” said Sally Thompson, executive director of The Border Consortium, one of the largest NGOs working across the nine camps. 

“They need to see real change on the ground. They fled from the military and suspicions still run deep.”

Fewer options

But the refugees are running out of options.

The Border Consortium has seen international donations fall from 820 million Thai baht (about $23 million) over 2015 to an estimated 605 million Thai baht for 2016 – a fall of 26 percent. One consequence of reduced support is that the refugees now receive less food: rice rations have declined from 16 kilograms per person each month to nine kilograms.

“If we reduced it any further then we would have nutritional concerns, health concerns,” said Thompson.

Faced with an unprecedented global refugee crisis, donors are directing funding to other areas and resettlement spaces are running out for Myanmar refugees, especially in light of the recent reforms.

With ongoing conflicts in countries including Syria, Yemen, and Afghanistan, global displacement has hit a record high, UNHCR said in an annual report today. There are 65.3 million people displaced worldwide, of whom 21.3 million are refugees. The rest are displaced within the borders of their home countries. There were also more new asylum claims in 2015 than in any previous year.

“In a situation where there are only a certain number of resettlement places available, countries have to examine factors such as humanitarian need, and then they have to prioritise,” explained David John, a senior regional programme coordinator with the International Organization for Migration in Thailand.

After Afghanistan, Myanmar is the second-largest source of refugees and internally displaced people in Asia, with almost one million in total, according to the UNHCR report. And yet, due to the political progress in their home country, Myanmar refugees are now less likely than ever to have their asylum claims accepted.

The United States, which refers to Myanmar by its former name, Burma, has taken in 85,000 refugees over the years. But a State Department spokesperson told IRIN that it is winding down its resettlement programme.

“We have reached the natural conclusion of the programme that has specific eligibility criteria for Burmese refugees,” said the spokesperson.
Discover More

Tough choices

At IOM’s resettlement processing centre, south of Mae La, refugees boarded a double-decker bus, the first leg of their journey to a new life in the US. 

“Burma does not feel like home; the camp does not feel like home,” said Doh Htoo. “We will go to America and try to make this our home.” 

He and his family were lucky enough to have been registered as refugees in 2005 and processed for resettlement. But they are among the very last who will have that opportunity.

Instead, refugees who remain in Thailand have two options: stay in the camps as funding and services dry up, or return to Myanmar and face an uncertain future.

Refugees from Myanmar seek hope through resettlement in S. Korea

By Choi Soo-hyang

YEONGJONGDO, South Korea, June 20 (Yonhap) -- When 35-year-old Myanmar refugee Nei Oo arrived in South Korea with his wife and three sons in December, his top priority was to educate his kids in a better environment.

Since his family moved into the Korean Immigration Reception Center in Yeongjongdo, 40 kilometers west of Seoul, he has added more to his wish list.

"I want to work if there are any good jobs open, not only to afford an education for my children but also to live well here with my family," Nei Oo said Monday during an interview celebrating World Refugee Day.

Nei Oo, a Myanmar refugee who came to South Korea in December 2015 from a Thai refugee camp, answers questions during a press conference held at the Korean Immigration Reception Center in Yeongjongdo, 40 kilometers west of Seoul, on June 20, 2016. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees resettlement program transfers refugees living in temporary camps in an asylum country to another country that has agreed to admit them. (Yonhap)

Nei Oo is one of 22 ethnic Karen refugees from Myanmar that arrived in South Korea last year as the first beneficiaries of Seoul's new resettlement program.

The refugees, four different families, previously stayed at refugee camps in Thailand to avoid oppression in Myanmar before coming here.

Most of the families said education, among other factors, led them to choose South Korea as their third country.

"Life back in Thailand was too harsh," Day Nya said, adding she could not work outside nor send her kids to school. "Now they all go to school here and we have hope."

The immigration reception center where the refugees are staying is a state-run organization that provides adjustment programs to refugees and asylum applicants.

"We are now providing vocational education so that the refugees can find their interests and capabilities before leaving this center," said Park Jin-soo, director in charge of the refugees' education.

A group of Myanmar refugees who arrived in South Korea in December 2015 poses during an event celebrating the World Refugee Day at the Korean Immigration Reception Center in Yeongjongdo, 40 kilometers west of Seoul, on June 20, 2016. (Yonhap)

A total of 51 people, including the four Myanmar families, are currently living at the center.

The center said it will start integrating the families into local communities starting September with the goal of finishing the procedure by the end of this year.

South Korea introduced the refugee program last year to accept up to 30 refugees every year until 2017 on a trial basis, granting them with F-2 visas.

It plans to decide whether to formally keep the refugee program after close analysis.

"They (refugees) are people like us," said Naveed Hussain, the chief of the Korean branch of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). "The only difference is that we have a home to go and they don't have a home."

He said it is an obligation of the international community to provide them protection until they get back on their feet.

Kim Woo-hyeon, the chief of the Korea Immigration Service, also vowed to put efforts into changing paradigms in supporting refugees in the country and embracing them into society.

Myanmar refugee Nei Oo and his family give a tour of their room at the Korean Immigration Reception Center in Yeongjongdo, 40 kilometers west of Seoul, on June 20, 2016. Nei Oo's family, along with three other Myanmar families, arrived in South Korea as part of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees resettlement program. The program transfers refugees living in temporary camps in an asylum country to another country that has agreed to admit them. (Yonhap)

Myanmar will be ready to take back refugees soon, source claims

MYANMAR will soon be ready to take back over 100,000 refugees from nine shelters in Thailand, as the country moves towards democracy, an informed source claimed yesterday.
Details were revealed during the launch of a "World Refugee Day" event at Ban Umpiem Mai shelter in Phop Phra district in Tak province, which currently houses about 20,000 refugees. 

Shutaro Omura, the political affairs representative at the Japanese Embassy in Thailand, presided over the launch, which was also witnessed by Phop Phra district chief Prasong La-on and local Thai officials, plus representatives of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and staff from non-government groups. 

The source said a team from UNHCR had earlier visited the city of Hpa-An in Myanmar to negotiate with authorities there for repatriation of the refugees.

However, the head of The Border Consortium (TBC), the group that funds food and support for the border camps, said yesterday it was unlikely that refugees in camps in Thailand were about to be repatriated to Myanmar.

TBC executive director Sally Thompson said: "Our understanding is that no policy on refugee return has been outlined by the NLD [government] as yet. 

"To date, the message from all sides is the [new] Myanmar government has said it's not yet ready for refugee return. And Thailand has said they're waiting for the Myanmar government to say they're ready.

Close watch on Panglong II talks

"Refugee return is not a priority issue in Myanmar at present," Thompson said.

The NLD government, headed by State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and President Htin Kyaw, is said to be focused on a major meeting between the government, military and ethnic groups at Panglong II forum- to try to thrash out big issues such as demilitarisation and political |participation that could lead to a more meaningful peace agreement than the deal brokered with eight ethnic groups by the Thein Sein government just prior to the election late last year. 

Panglong II refers to the ambition of many ethnic groups to reconvene the Panglong conference held in the Shan State township in 1947 between some ethnic groups and national hero General Aung San to talk about their |political future after Myanmar became independent. 

The outcome of those talks will be closely watched by Myanmar people both in and outside the country. If there is significant progress toward peace in various areas, a policy on refugee repatriation of the 100,000-plus refugees on the Thai border may then be considered, many sources have said. 

Suu Kyi is due to visit Tham Hin camp in Ratchaburi on Saturday morning, as part of her three-day visit to Thailand, which starts on Thursday.

Employing refugees a win-win solution

Today — June 20 — is World Refugee Day. It is a time for us all to join in solidarity with the millions of refugees around the world who have been forced from the security of their homes by war and persecution. It is also a time to acknowledge their courage and resilience in the face of appalling challenges and insecurity. Over 65 million people worldwide have been forced to flee their homes — the highest number since the end of the Second World War. One in every 113 humans — or more than twice the population of Malaysia — is affected by conflict or serious human insecurity. In an increasingly globalised and interconnected world, no country is unaffected by this human tragedy. 

Malaysia, like other countries in the region, has been host to thousands of refugees over the past 50 years. Many people fleeing the Indochinese conflicts of the 1970s and 1980s found sanctuary and safety in Malaysia whilst the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the international community looked for more durable solutions for them, usually by resettlement to other countries. And today, although Malaysia has not signed the 1951 Refugee Convention, more than 150,000 asylum seekers and refugees — mostly from Myanmar — are seeking the protection of UNHCR in this country. Refugees in Malaysia have no legal status and are considered, by law, to be illegal migrants. This means that they have no lawful means to earn a living or to support themselves and their families. Their children are not permitted into the national school system and they face daily challenges in securing accessible and affordable healthcare. 

Many are forced into the informal market economy where they face discrimination and exploitation. This deepens the profound sense of insecurity and dislocation that accompanies their forced displacement. It also prevents them from making a meaningful contribution to Malaysia during their stay in exile. In confronting these challenges, Malaysia has a unique opportunity to look at solutions for refugees that have not been available in the past few decades. The changing situation in Myanmar means that many refugees from that country can start to contemplate a more positive future in their home country. With UNHCR’s support, countries in the region can better support some refugee communities as they consider the gradual transition from a life in exile to a future at home. Other refugee communities, for whom no immediate solution is in sight, need better protection and assistance, particularly those who are most vulnerable. Separated or unaccompanied refugee children, women and girls and the victims of trafficking or sexual abuse and violence need our special care and support. They ought not be excluded from our sympathy and care simply because of their “unlawful migration” status. UNHCR believes that a new compact of solidarity and support can be built for refugees in Malaysia and in the region. A compact that would allow vulnerable refugees to live and work lawfully in Malaysia would have three important and very positive effects.

 FIRST, a regulated scheme for refugees, that includes the opportunity to work lawfully, would address the legitimate concerns of the government concerning security, law and order, and criminality that currently pervades parts of the unregulated labour market economy. A government-administered registration system, working closely with UNHCR, would provide important biometric data, and verifiable identity documentation, as to who is in Malaysia. Enrolling refugees in a legal work scheme would bring them out of the shadows of the informal economy into a national data management system that can track their identities, location, and activities. This would also extricate refugees from the exploitation of smugglers and traffickers and the criminal market. SECOND, registered refugees, who could work lawfully, would provide a ready source of willing and reliable labour to support the Malaysian economy and increase national productivity. 

The World Bank has shown in its 2015 Malaysia Economic Monitor, that legalised refugee workers would lead to the creation of more jobs in Malaysia, increased wages for Malaysians, and increased Gross Domestic Product. UNHCR estimates that monetary contributions generated by a legalised refugee workforce could amount to RM152 million in annual revenue for Malaysia, based on the same levy rates as legal foreign workers. This means that the cost of hosting refugees in Malaysia would be more than offset by their positive contributions. THIRD, a scheme to allow refugees to live and work legally in Malaysia would be transformational in improving their protection and dignity, particularly for vulnerable women and children. 

Greater self-sufficiency among refugee communities would lead to better health and education and a significantly reduced burden on the host state. At the same time, it would provide a stronger basis for refugees to contemplate their future options, including returning to their home countries with transferable skills to start their new lives. UNHCR is convinced that this new approach would present a compact for closer cooperation with the government. It is a win-win for the people of Malaysia, for its security and economy, and for refugees who live here temporarily. On World Refugee Day 2016, we must all stand together #WithRefugees in solidarity with some of the world’s most vulnerable people. UNHCR is grateful for Malaysia’s solidarity #WithRefugees, on this important day. Richard Towle is UNHCR Representative to Malaysia