By Michael Zeller, Meagan Floyd and Jason Abbott
He hobbled into the community office on rusting crutches with bandages spilling out the bottom of his jeans. Slowly, he inched the leg of his pants above the knee, grimacing in pain as the jeans snagged on the thick layers of gauze. As he presented his swaddled limb to me, he turned his face away unable to bear the sight of the injury that has plagued him for months.
Quietly, the man explained he didn’t know anything about construction, but desperate for work, he accepted a position wiring electricity throughout buildings. A few months after starting his job, while climbing through the skeleton of an unfinished building, clenching bundles of wire in his teeth, he lost his grip and plummeted three stories. His fall was broken when his leg lodged between two stairs and snapped in three spots. Rushed to the nearest government hospital, the doctors refused treatment.
Without a UNHCR card, the medics realized he would be unable to afford the operation he desperately required. Instead, they wrapped his mangled leg in makeshift dressings and sent him on his way. The next day, a Chin community leader brought the man to a free health clinic searching for aid only to find the clinic did not have the capacity for surgery.
The doctors placed an urgent call to the UNHCR and forwarded the application for refugee status hoping to expedite the case and rush the man into surgery. Yet after three months of waiting and innumerable inquiries to UNHCR, the man has received no response and no medical treatment. A case like the one above brazenly affronts one’s sensibilities. Exasperation alone matches the shock at the man’s prolonged suffering—and the horror of a longer period possibly still to come. Exasperation extends to several quarters: the persecution that impelled his flight from Burma, the hostile conditions that greeted him in a country where he sought refuge, the construction firm that offered scant training, the hospital that denied treatment in a grotesque violation of the spirit of the Hippocratic Oath, and on and on.
However, one can scarcely refrain from leveling a disparaging finger at one particular entity: the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (colloquially known as UNHCR). To be sure, UNHCR’s office in Malaysia suffers a terrible deficiency of resources. One-hundred and thirty employees are charged with care for a refugee population nearing one-hundred and fifty thousand. Countries willing to resettle refugees permanently are far too few and far too inattentive.
Funding dispersed by UN headquarters in Geneva is safely assumed insufficient. The rate of employee turnover surpasses reasonable standards of sustainability. And, in the Malaysian government and its organs, UNHCR has hosts that are at best indifferent to the plight of refugees in the country.
Yet, worthy of blame as Malaysian authorities are, the country is not a signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention and thus has no obligation to caring for asylum seekers in international law. Rather, Malaysia permits the presence of the UNHCR on a goodwill basis, stacking the entirety of the refugee burden on the narrow shoulders of a beleaguered office in Kuala Lumpur.
However, the UNHCR has exceeded the basic mandate that Malaysia’s circumstances require, an ill-advised exertion given the scarcity of the organization’s resources. The sum conditions—including a large and diverse refugee population, a disengaged government, a lack of excess monetary and personnel resources, and the existence of viable private adjuncts in many sectors—merit a streamlined, narrowly tailored operation.
UNHCR is tasked with overseeing the welfare of refugees and their expeditious resettlement. They should not channel their limited resources to fund computer education programs, subsidize teachers, and conduct public forums with local NGOs, activities which they nonetheless undertake.
The UNHCR would do well to avail itself of the example provided by the forefather of international administration: J. Eric Drummond, first Secretary General of the League of Nations. As Drummond did, UNHCR Malaysia should develop a corps of focused experts, in this case working swiftly to register and resettle refugees.
They should utilize the wide array of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to tend to the refugees needs while in transit. Health Equity Initiative, Tzu Chi medical clinic, and ACTS medical service can see provide health resources. While groups like Tenaganita, Lawyers for Liberty, and SUARAM can champion and safeguard the rights of refugees.
Refugee community organizations have proved incredibly adept at organizing schools and dealing with more minor logistical concerns, so this should be their continued province. The few non-case workers of a restructured UNHCR ought to comprise an expanded lobbying/advocacy department (relative to the current one-person operation). They should make matches of the aforementioned NGOs and Western donor organizations like the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, the National Endowment for Democracy, Open Society Institute, and Amnesty International.
It is hard to conceive a UNHCR office endowed well enough to match the donor capabilities of such private and semi-private organizations. Unfortunately, the organizational and operational weaknesses of the UNHCR in Malaysia do not represent the greatest flaws of the body as it is currently constituted. In fact, the previous prescriptions may not be suited to rules and arrangements peculiar to UNHCR Malaysia.
We outside the organization, researcher and refugee alike, are befuddled by the opacity and intractability that presides therein. Policies differentiating between specific refugee groups, though unelaborated by UNHCR representatives, appear at best nebulous and at worst to smack of corruption and prejudice.
Despite testimony to the contrary from a UNHCR representative, community groups and local NGOs insist that refugees from Burma (except the Muslim Rohingya) are no longer being registered. Indeed, a representative from human rights watchdog SUARAM reported that the UNHCR employs a policy of premeditated duplicity, whereby researchers and representatives from outside Malaysia are informed that all refugee populations are being accepted for registration, but the actual policy restricts that key privilege to a few.
Why this is, how such groups are selected, what specific struggles are foremost in the operation of the UNHCR, and the possibly Lucullan excess of executive salaries*, can hardly be known since the UNHCR refused to meet with us following our initial interview with them. * UNHCR figures for Malaysia from 2007 show that executive positions (program office/senior program officer) at the KL branch ranged from $50,800 to $103,500 against $4,186 to $6,400 for a cleaner, $7,520 to $8,600 for a driver, and $13,400 to $20,500 for an administrative clerk. By comparison the average household income for Kuala Lumpur in 2009 was $20,580.