Malaysia has pledged to take in 3,000 Syrian asylum seekers over the next three years, but refugee groups hope the invitation will also be extended to the more than 1,000 Syrian refugees already on Malaysian soil.
KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia welcomed two families from Syria on Tuesday (Dec 8), the first group of 3,000 Syrians whom it hopes to eventually provide temporary shelter to over the next three years.
"It's very bad and every day is war and bombings in the area," said Mohamed Ebrahim, who belongs to one of the families. Syria has been ravaged by civil war for nearly five years, forcing millions out of the country in search of safer shores.
Malaysia has offered to be one of these havens, until things improve back home. It has pledged to take in 3,000 Syrian asylum seekers over the next three years - starting with these two families.
"The overriding action that we're doing here today is we're doing it for humanitarian reasons, to bring people from a bad situation to rebuild their lives," said Malaysian Deputy Home Minister Nur Jazlan Mohamed.
The two families were brought over after their Syrian relatives working in Malaysia appealed to the Malaysian government for help.
A newly-formed special taskforce is working out details for future Syrian arrivals. The government wants to help Syrians coming through this programme to get work permits, enabling them to be self-sufficient.
But refugee groups hope these benefits will also be extended to the more than 1,000 Syrian refugees already on Malaysian soil.
Malaysia is not a signatory to the United Nations’ refugee convention and refugees under the UNHCR often work here illegally or survive on NGO support until they can either return home or resettle elsewhere.
"I ask the government of Malaysia to accept us and to give us permission to work here and live until Syria gets the same like before and we can go back there," said Feras S, a Syrian refugee in Malaysia.
“I really, really hope that the Malaysian government opening its doors to the 3,000 means it will open its ears and hearts to the ones who are here," said Lia Syed, executive director or the Malaysian Social Research Institute.
Malaysia has not shut the door on this idea. It says it will engage multiple parties, including the UN’s refugee agency, to decide how to honour the commitment it has made to Syrian asylum seekers.
"We have always welcomed people who are also termed as refugees,” said Nur Jazlan. “The problem is how do we tackle the bureaucracy when it comes to giving them a status to stay in Malaysia … and how to allow them to work in Malaysia and how about their accommodation, needs and the rest. This issue is not easy to solve but we're looking at it."
Whatever happens, Malaysia says national security will be prioritised. There will be a strict vetting process for any refugees accepted from Syria, where militant group Islamic State controls large areas.