Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Develop a comprehensive policy framework for refugees and asylum seekers

KUALA LUMPUR: The Malaysian Bar welcomes the statement by the Minister of Home Affairs Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, as reported in the news media, that refugees would be trained in order for them to seek employment whilst they remain in Malaysia awaiting resettlement to a third country or voluntary repatriation to their country of origin. For far too long refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia have been forced to fend for themselves and to feed their families by working illicitly and in the shadows, with no legal protection. This has exposed them to discrimination, exploitation and victimisation. 

 Allowing refugees and asylum seekers the ability to access lawful employment is a positive step in the right direction. Malaysia is host to a significant refugee population, many of whom are from Myanmar. According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Malaysia (“UNHCR Malaysia”)’s ​ website,2 there were 104,070 refugees and asylum-seekers registered with them as at the end May 2013. 94,760 persons (91%) originated from Myanmar while persons from countries such as Sri Lanka, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan made up the majority of the remaining 9%. 

UNHCR Malaysia also estimates that there are a further 49,000 unregistered asylum seekers in Malaysia. Unlike economic migrants, refugees and asylum seekers are victims of persecution who are compelled to abandon everything at home, and flee to foreign shores to seek safety and refuge. However, Malaysian law does not expressly recognise the concept of refugees or asylum seekers and they are often treated under our laws as “illegal immigrants”. They are thus vulnerable to arrest, detention, imprisonment, whipping and deportation. Our laws are not properly geared to accord them due recognition, care and protection. 

 Due to the uncertainty of their status in Malaysia and restrictions in seeking lawful employment, refugees and asylum seekers are often forced to take up unofficial employment to support themselves and their families, usually on a casual basis without any employment contract or agreement.

 This has made them vulnerable to exploitation in the form of non-payment of wages, long working hours and dangerous working conditions. They are also at risk of harassment, extortion and ill treatment by enforcement officers and members of the public at their work place, during their travel to and from work, and even in and around their place of residence. As a result, they live in a climate of fear and insecurity.

 We are hopeful that this change in policy by the Malaysian Government will lead to an overall improvement in the outlook for refugees and asylum seekers. The Malaysian Government should ensure that a proper recruitment and monitoring system under the Ministry of Human Resources is put in place to ensure that refugees and asylum seekers are accorded the basic labour rights of a decent wage, fair working hours, off-days, medical benefits, and workplace health and safety protection, and are not exploited or trafficked in any way. 

 On a wider perspective, the Malaysian Bar urges the Malaysian Government to put in place a suitable legal and administrative framework for dealing with refugees and asylum seekers in a holistic, humane and appropriate manner, and to work closely with stakeholders such as UNHCR Malaysia, civil society organisations and the Bar. 

 In this regard, the Malaysian Bar invites the Malaysian Government to look at and implement the detailed short-term, medium-term and long-term measures and recommendations contained in a proposal entitled “Developing a Comprehensive Policy Framework for Refugees and Asylum Seekers”, which was jointly submitted to it by UNHCR Malaysia and the Malaysian Bar. 

 It is also high time Malaysia ratifies the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, both of which are instruments encapsulating customary international law in relation to the recognition of the socio-economic rights of refugees and the provision of humanitarian assistance and social integration for them. 

 Statement issued by: 
Bar Council president 
Christopher Leong