Refugee issue has been a global issue due to the conflicts in the world that jeopardise the lives of people and it is also affecting Malaysia. There are some 35,000 unregistered asylum-seekers as well as 143,435 refugees and asylum-seekers registered with United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Malaysia as of end March 2014. Currently, without recognition of the refugee status by the Malaysian government, the refugees in Malaysia are constantly being harassed, ill-treated and denied their fundamental rights because of their lack of official status. Therefore, as one of the non-permanent members of United Nations Security Council, ratification of the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol by Malaysia is very important to provide protection to the refugees and asylum seekers in this country by avoiding arbitrary arrest and detention as well as to facilitate in resettling refugees. This ratification is a major step forward to ensure that human rights are being upheld in line with the Malaysian government’s “wasatiyyah” or moderation and balance approach.
Refugees in Malaysia
People who fled from their home countries because of fear of persecution are called asylum-seekers and refugees and they seek refuge in other countries including Malaysia. There is a difference between asylum-seekers and refugees. Those who seek refuge are considered asylum-seekers and they will be granted refugee status once proven to be genuine refugees after being processed. Unlike internally displaced persons (IDP), asylum-seekers and refugees fled not just from their hometowns but also from their home countries by crossing an international border.
They are always mistakenly believed to be economic migrants or illegal migrants who came to this country just to seek better employment opportunities when the fact is that they are proven to be at risk of being presecuted. The refugees in Malaysia comprise of 133,070 people from Myanmar, 4,216 Sri Lankans, 1,139 Somalis, 902 Syrians, 776 Iraqis, 319 Afghans, and others from other countries. Out of these refugees, around 70% are men, while 30% are women.
For the past 40 years, Malaysia has become a destination for the refugees to seek either temporary or permanent refuge from the devastating conflicts although it is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. In the past, this has included Filipino refugees from Mindanao arriving during the late 1970s and early 1980s, Cambodian and Vietnamese refugees during the 1980s and 1990s, a small number of Bosnian refugees in the early 1990s, and Indonesians from the Province of Aceh in the early 2000s. However, after Comprehensive Plan of Action (CPA) ended in 2001, there is no more formal written agreement between UNHCR and the Malaysian government to handle refugee status determination process.
At the moment, the fate of asylum-seekers and refugees is uncertain because the Malaysian authorities do not distinguish between asylum-seekers/refugees and illegal migrants. Moreover, under Article 6 of the 1959/1963 Immigration Act, any person who enters the country without valid documentation will be severely punished regardless whether he or she is a refugee or not.
Following are the reasons why Malaysia should sign and ratify the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol.
1. To fulfil human rights obligations
Recently, Malaysia’s commitment to world’s peace and security was recognised by the global community by being elected as one of the UN Security Council non-permanent members and Malaysia is also a member of the UN Human Rights Council as well as signatory to the UN Convention. One of the important aspects to keep the world in order is to uphold human rights of every mankind. By signing and ratifying the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, it is a major step forward to give protection to the refugees. With this framework, it shows Malaysia’s commitment and this will guide Malaysia towards giving protection to the refugees who have already faced threats. Furthermore, Malaysia was a member of UNHCR from 1993 till 1998 and was also elected as Chair of the 52nd session of the UNHCR in 1995. While Malaysia is passionate in helping refugees in Palestine and Syria, it should not forget that giving protection to refugees on the Malaysian soil is equally urgent and imperative too. It shows how sincere Malaysia is in helping to mitigate the problems faced by refugees regardless where they come from with no biasness or favouritism.
2. To avoid arrest, detention and prosecution of refugees
Pasukan Sukarelawan Malaysia (Rela) was established on January 11, 1972, with the effective of (Essential Powers) Emergency Act 1964 – Essential Rules (Ikatan Relawan Rakyat) (Amendment) 2005 to enable the masses to volunteer in preserving the national peace and security. Rela has the power to enforce immigration law including arresting and detaining illegal migrants which the Malaysian Bar Council opposed through a motion at its Annual General Meeting on 17 March 2007. Crackdowns by poorly trained volunteer Rela officers tend to violate the due process of law because they can detain and arrest the undocumented migrants including refugees who hold UNHCR card without a warrant.
Currently, of the three durable solutions – local integration, voluntary repatriation and resettlement in third countries, the last option is often the most viable for many refugees in as Malaysia becomes a transit country for temporary protection. By recognising the status of refugees, Malaysian authorities can facilitate UNHCR in resettling them to receiving countries like what happened in the 1970s and 1980s with the 255, 000 Vietnamese boat people who were placed at eight refugee camps in Malaysia. Even though Malaysia is not a state party to the Refugee Convention, Malaysia is still bound by customary international law and therefore it must respect the principle of non-refoulement which means that it cannot return the refugees to where they are at risk or in danger.
3.To safeguard refugee children’s fundamental human rights
To date, there are some 29,996 children below the age of 18 and they are denied their fundamental human rights due to their unofficial status. Article 22 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) which Malaysia signed and ratified in February 1995, specifically requires member states to provide appropriate protection and humanitarian assistance to refugee children. The refugee children in Malaysia grow up with minimal safety because they may be arrested by immigration authorities. A 13 year-old-boy from Myanmar, Ahmad (not his real name) was arrested and put in a crowded cell with adult men for 6 months. Apart from not being given enough food and water, he was also being caned as the amended Immigration Act (Section 6) in 2002 sets out that all non-citizens with no valid documentation ‘shall also be liable to whipping of not more than six strokes’ and can be put at the detention centres indefinitely.
In a nutshell, protecting the rights of asylum-seekers and refugees has become a duty for everyone including Malaysia as this issue has been ongoing for so long. As a member of the UN Security Council, Malaysia should take a progressive step in recognising and addressing the plight of the asylum-seekers and refugees as part of its obligation and effort to maintain world’s peace and security. Of course, more needs to be done than just signing and ratifying 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. However, the ratification of this convention and protocol can at least avoid arbitrary arrest and detention as well as to facilitate the refugees to being resettled. – November 19, 2014.
*Aslam Abd Jalil reads The Malaysian Insider.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.
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