KUALA LUMPUR: The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Malaysia, Richard Towle, wants a comprehensive rethink and set of responses that address both human security and state security in Malaysia at the same time. “It’s necessary”
He points out, in a statement carried by AsiaOne Malaysia, that currently the UNHCR’s working relationship with the Malaysian Government revolves around only arrests and detention issues. He would prefer a “closer collaboration” with the government on the management of refugees.
He was commenting on the discovery of human smuggling camps and the bodies of illegal immigrants dumped in mass graves at Songkla and Padang Besar near the Thai-Malaysia border. In Malaysia, he added, there are allegations of similar “slave camps” which deal in the dirty business of human trafficking.
As Towle bluntly puts it, the days of refugees in Malaysia resettling in third countries are coming to an end because there are bigger crises elsewhere demanding international attention, such as the Middle East, Sub Sahara and Africa. “The number of places available for resettlement internationally for the refugees in Malaysia was also shrinking fast, so we need to try and find a solution soon”.
“Last year, we submitted 15,000 applications for resettlement but this year the number will be half of that because there was no longer the same degree of interest.”
Of the applicants last year, only 11,000 got resettled in third countries.
The number of places for resettlement internationally for refugees in Malaysia is shrinking fast.
Towle says of the 152,570 refugees registered with the UNHCR, 94 per cent are from Myanmar, 40 per cent of whom are Rohingyas. And he says although Malaysia has not signed the 1967 Protocol to recognise the Status of Refugees or the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees, the fact was that “there are a lot of people coming in”.
“Because of the porous borders, easy access and relatively robust economy, Malaysia looks inviting to people from less developed neighbouring countries who hope to get in and work illegally.”
It is often a cat-and-mouse game with the authorities because if they get caught, those here illegally would be kept at detention centres and deported, he said. “While many are here solely for economic reasons, others like the Rohingyas come because they are forced to flee due to persecution in their own country.”
Other than the 152,570 UNHCR registered refugees, Towle believes there are tens of thousands more who have not registered and “whom we know nothing about”.
“The choice for Malaysia now was whether they remain faceless and in the black and grey economy or for the authorities to take steps to try and find out who’s here through some kind of registration programme,” he said.
“If the government was concerned about law and order, criminality and security, the only way to deal with it was through some kind of registration programme. If no steps are taken to find out who is here, then they will remain in this dark grey area of exploitation and criminality,” he says.
In Malaysia, a refugee is not allowed to work legally. Since they cannot go home anyway and they need money to survive, most end up working illegally for horribly low wages.
“They live in a highly exploited labour economy where young children are working and where we see the magnet of trafficking and smuggling rings working every day,” said Towle. “Images of people dying at labour camps at the Malaysia-Thai border are appalling. These are foul exploitative trades and practices. People leave their country because they are so desperate.”
“Decisive cooperative action between states needs to be taken, otherwise these (exploitative) practices will continue.”