Saturday, March 19, 2016

Refugees in Malaysia: Victims of their identity — Shaun Kang


MARCH 19 — I refer to the news report on March 17, 2016 titled “Cops warn of crime spike as cartels sell fake refugee cards to illegal immigrants.” Firstly, I share the authorities’ concern that the rising number of illegal immigrants is indeed troubling and should be addressed.

However, this concern should not serve to distort the distinction between refugees and illegal immigrants (including those who attempt to pose as refugees). Nor should it emit fear among the authorities for UNCHR to continue issuing identity cards (“refugee cards”).

Who are refugees and what are refugee cards?

Refugees are persons defined and protected by international law (in particular, the Refugee Convention). For a person to be recognised as a refugee, they would first have to undergo a complex interview and fact-finding process conducted by highly skilled and trained persons (often experts in the fields, including lawyers trained in international law).

A person will only be recognised as a refugee if he or she meets certain stringent criteria stipulated by the Refugee Convention. In Malaysia, this pivotal role of determining an applicant’s status is carried out by UNHCR on behalf of the government.

Essentially, refugees are not in Malaysia on their own terms. Rather, they are fellow human beings, who flee from their country for a variety of reasons, often including, torture, murder, rape, arbitrary arrests and deprivation of citizenship.

Further, refugees are not here with the intention to live indefinitely but are usually on transit, awaiting resettlement to a third country. The refugee card, which is often the only form of personal identification for a refugee, also commonly serves as the only means for UNHCR and the authorities to identify and distinguish between a refugee and an economic migrant.


UNHCR and refugee cards

I turn to address the point made on UNHCR’s lack of legal standing to issue refugee cards. Firstly, the issuance of an identity document by UNHCR is not only practically necessary for monitoring and enforcement exercises but also consistent with the Refugee Convention and universal principles of International Law.

The government’s stance on the issuance of this identity document is arguable. In reality, UNHCR has been present in Malaysia for more than 40 years and its involvement in recognizing and documenting refugees throughout the years has never faced much objection from the authorities.

On one end, the authorities are now questioning the legality of UNHCR in issuing refugee cards, but on the other, it is evident that refugee cards are instrumental for the authorities in identity verification exercises. In fact, in countries where the government undertakes the responsibility of issuing refugee cards to refugees, UNHCR does not issue such cards but merely facilitates the government.

It is regrettable that the integrity of the refugee recognition process employed by UNHCR is being put to question. As explained, the detailed process carried out by UNHCR’s officers before recognising an applicant as a refugee is in line with international law and standards, therefore such claims are unwarranted.

It is also inaccurate to assume that UNHCR Malaysia has been unco-operative with the authorities in the verification of the authenticity of refugee cards. As it appears, UNHCR has a dedicated system catering for law enforcers to verify the identity of a refugee in Malaysia. 

UNHCR appears also to have played an active role in assisting the authorities to verify such persons by visiting detention centers and being present during raids carried out by authorities. Further, UNHCR has shown its commitment in cooperation by sharing its database with the authorities.


Moving forward

It appears that the focus should not be on the legality and the process of recognizing refugees by UNHCR but rather, the need to improve the security features of the refugee card to ensure that it cannot be easily duplicated and that its authenticity can be easily verified by UNHCR and the authorities.

While the physical card itself is of importance, the involvement of the authorities in the process of documenting refugees is all the more pertinent.

UNHCR is seen to advocate this particularly when it invited the co-operation and involvement of the authorities by urging them to issue biometric identity cards for refugees. Legally, the government appears to have an international legal obligation to recognise UNHCR and to co-operate with it in the international protection of refugees even though Malaysia is not a party to the Refugee Convention.

It is important that the authorities take cognisance of the importance of the identity card issued by UNHCR, and of UNHCR’s presence in Malaysia.

Instead of identifying UNHCR as the source of the problem, it should be agreed that the involvement of UNHCR in the recognition of refugees in the past 40 years has to a great extent alleviated the difficulties that the authorities would have otherwise faced in handling refugees.

Ultimately, the success of weeding out illegal immigrants from refugees is contingent on the co-operation between the authorities and UNHCR on the basis of a common understanding.

* Shaun Kang is a researcher in international law.

** This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online.

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