Refugees and asylum seekers from Myanmar are paying up to US$1,000 for UNHCR cards granting them official refugee status in Malaysia, an Al-Jazeera investigation has found.
Officials have been recorded openly describing themselves as "thieves" for brokering the illegal trade of registration documents.
"All the money from this activity goes into the pockets of some top guys in the UN," a UN translator claimed in Al-Jazeera's current affairs programme 101 East. "We have been doing this … for a long time. We are thieves, and we look for thieves above us."
Presenter Steve Chao posed as a priest in order to visit squalid detention centres in Malaysia's capital Kuala Lumpur, where he interviewed dozens of refugees and asylum seekers, some of them Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar, for Malaysia's Unwanted, which aired last week.
Interviewees said they faced police harassment and exploitation, were barred from work or sending their children to school, and lived in abysmal conditions: some refugees were beaten, chained, handcuffed, and had not been fed for days.
Some 150,000 refugees and asylum seekers live in Malaysia - nearly all from Myanmar - but because Malaysia is not party to the UN's 1951 Refugee Convention or the 1967 protocol recognising refugees, they are vulnerable to abuse and foul play by authorities, rights groups say.
All UN High Commissioner For Refugees (UNHCR) services should be provided for free.
Malaysia's UNHCR mission - which sees more than 1,000 refugees and asylum seekers daily - is reportedly overwhelmed by the sheer number of those in need, with mission leader Richard Towle. "You make tough decisions all the time about triaging and prioritising who is the neediest of the people in an already needy group of people," he said.
A UNHCR Malaysia spokeswoman said the agency was aware of the claims and had a "zero-tolerance policy" on corruption. Resettlement operations were reportedly suspended earlier this year to investigate the claims.
The UN General Assembly's human-rights committee has approved a resolution urging Myanmar to allow its persecuted Rohingya Muslim minority "access to full citizenship on an equal basis".
The committee adopted the resolution by consensus, though Myanmar's ambassador objected to the UN's use of the term "Rohingya", saying it "will only pose a barrier on the road to solving this important issue".
Myanmar's 1.3 million Rohingya have been denied citizenship and have almost no rights. Authorities want to officially categorise them as "Bengalis", implying they are illegal migrants from neighbouring Bangladesh. Those who refuse become candidates for detainment and deportation.
The government's "action plan" would soon be released, Myanmese Ambassador Tim Kyaw told the committee.
The European Union-drafted, non-binding resolution is one piece of international pressure on the predominantly Buddhist country to change its approach. The resolution now goes to the UN General Assembly.
Attacks by Buddhist mobs have left hundreds dead and 140,000 trapped in camps, and other Rohingya are fleeing the country.
But last week, President Thein Sein told Voice of America radio that reports the Rohingya were fleeing alleged torture were a "media fabrication".