Majority of refugees in Malaysia are from Myanmar. UNHCR suggests a biometric identification card be implemented to regulate the refugees. – Reuters filepic, June 25, 2015.
In the face of the recent influx of ethnic Rohingyas fleeing from persecution in Myanmar, Malaysia finds itself caught between encountering a humanitarian crisis and having to deal with the security and social problems that are bound to arise when asylum-seekers are allowed to swarm into the nation.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Malaysia has, in the meantime, been busy seeking solutions which will find favour with the host nation, as well as safeguard the rights of the refugees so that they can live in dignity while waiting for resettlement.
According to press reports, a total of 153,004 refugees were registered with the UNHCR as of May this year, and 93% of them were from Myanmar.
But, according to the agency, "tens of thousands" of undocumented asylum-seekers could be roaming in the streets and they were the ones who were likely to fall into a life of crime or be exploited by human traffickers.
UNHCR Representative in Malaysia Richard Towle said the agency was advocating the introduction of an indentity card with advance biometric security features, to be issued to all refugees so that the government could keep tabs on them.
"We've already proposed this to the Malaysian government and the matter is currently under discussion."
Pointing out that only the UNHCR was involved in the registration of refugees presently, Towle said the agency could work together with the government to implement a more comprehensive system of registration to identify bona fide refugees and weed out economic migrants.
"We would like to work closely with the government (where registration of refugees is concerned) because we think this way, we can combat crime and trafficking issues (involving refugees) more effectively.
“If we can produce an identity card with advance biometric features and if the government finds it suitable, then it will go a long way in combating exploitation and crime."
Currently, UNHCR issues a standard identity card to all refugees registered under the agency. This card, said Towle, has "high commercial value" but "no legal value" in Malaysia.
"It has high commercial value because the card has helped thousands of refugees to get jobs in the informal sectors, particularly in the Klang Valley, and they are, in fact, contributing to the nation's economy.
"And, although it has no legal value, at least it's recognised by the enforcement agencies and reduces the chances of the UN cardholders being detained or imprisoned."
Biometric documentation, if approved by the government, will help to "legalise" the status of refugees in Malaysia which, the UNHCR believes, will lead to a win-win situation for both the nation and the refugees.
It foresees three "wins". Firstly, the refugees will be able secure proper employment during the duration of their stay in Malaysia and become self-sufficient, without having to resort to criminal activities.
Secondly, employers can have their pick of skilled and well-qualified workers from among the refugees, which reduces the chances of them (refugees) being exploited.
Thirdly, by keeping tabs on the whereabouts of the refugees, the government can check criminal activities involving them.
"A major challenge facing the government in the 21st century is having to deal with security threats and organised international crime involving human trafficking syndicates. This is why we're proposing a proper registration system (and biometric documentation) for refugees to regulate and manage the refugee situation more effectively."
Last month, Malaysian authorities made shocking discoveries of multiple graves and suspected human trafficking camps in Wang Kelian in Perlis, along the Malaysian-Thai border.
As of June 22, 106 bodies have been found, and they are believed to be the remains of Bangladeshi and Rohingya human trafficking victims.
On the extra financial burden Malaysia would have to bear if it implemented measures to legalise the status of refugees, Towle assured that it would be a cost-neutral situation for the government as "all of the support rendered to refugees in this country is provided by UNHCR and via NGOs”.
He added that UNHCR had also recently taken a private healthcare insurance policy to enable refugees to seek treatment at private hospitals at lower rates.
Asked if the various problems, as well as human rights issues, pertaining to refugees could be resolved if Malaysia ratified the United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees 1951, Towle replied: "Not necessarily. All these things (like the proper registration of refugees and introduction of biometric identity cards) can be done by the government on a national level without it having to sign the convention.
"There are many domestic directives, regulations and even laws that can be passed to manage the refugee situation... these don't involve the signing of any convention."
Recently, the Malaysian Human Rights Commission (Suhakam) called on the government to ratify the 1951 UN convention to facilitate the tackling of refugee and human rights issues.
Deputy Foreign Minister Datuk Hamzah Zainuddin, however, has made it clear that Malaysia did not intend to become a state party of the convention as it has to study "in depth the impact and implication of participating in any international instrument".
– Bernama, June 25, 2015.