Refugees in Malaysia Face Abuse and Stigma, UN Official Says

Rohingya Muslim children from Myanmar, who now live in Malaysia, are seen sleeping in class at a School of Rohingya in Kuala Lumpur. Photo by Sammy Foo, Copyright @Demotix (1/31/2013)

Rohingya Muslim children from Myanmar, who now live in Malaysia, are seen sleeping in class at a School of Rohingya in Kuala Lumpur. Photo by Sammy Foo, Copyright @Demotix (1/31/2013)

In Southeast Asia, nations often deal with the influx of refugees from inside and outside the region. Malaysia is a hub and transit point for many refugees seeking sanctuary after escaping from neighboring communities plagued by conflict and oppression.

However, the government of Malaysia does not recognize refugees and asylum-seekers who are classified as “illegal immigrants”, and they are denied access to basic services provided by the state. Furthermore, under Article 6 of the Immigration Act, people without valid entry documentation are subjected to the full brunt of the law as they are given an “imprisonment term not exceeding five years and shall also be liable to whipping of not more than six strokes.”

According to the fact sheet of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are about 35,000 unregistered asylum-seekers as well as 143,435 refugees and asylum-seekers registered with their office in Malaysia as of end March 2014.

The poor state of refugees in the country was recently featured in an Al Jazeera report. During the interview, UNHCR Malaysia representative Richard Towle talked about the arbitrary arrests conducted by state forces, exploitation of refugees, corruption, neglect of children's rights and lack of resources to effectively assist the growing refugee community in Malaysia. He added:

Refugees are treated as illegal migrants, and illegal migrants are at risk of all forms of vulnerability in society. They are liable to be arrested and detained and live in a grey or dark zone of society where there is a high degree of exploitation or abuse.

The deputy home minister Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar denounced the interview with UNHCR and defended the government: 

Even though we are not a signatory to the convention of refugees, they are being treated with dignity, they are given access to medical treatment and they are allowed visits.

A member of Malaysia's National Legislature, MP Ong Kian Ming, expressed his disagreement with the home minister:

The replies of the Deputy Minister of Home Affairs Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaffar in Parliament on Tuesday showed that he is not aware of the seriousness of the accusations revealed in an Al Jazeera programme even though he was interviewed in the programme. In particular, his replies show that he is totally ignorant of the articles of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) of which Malaysia is a signatory.

But outspoken youth chief of political party Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia, Tan Keng Liang, held contrary views from the deputy home minister and the member of parliament:

His blusters on Twitter were met with outrage by ordinary Malaysians: 

Will the exposé embolden the Malaysian government and civil society groups to step up the reforms necessary to improve the quality of life for refugees?

These refugees and asylum seekers have fled the repressive and often brutal conditions in their home countries to seek shelter in a modern and peaceful Malaysia only to find that the government's tourism slogan of ‘Caring Malaysia’ is not entirely accurate.

It is important to acknowledge that many areas of legislation impact on the lives of refugees from issues relating to identity, employment, housing, as well as childcare, education and health. An informed society along with rights-based intervention, may bring about positive changes, uplifting them from marginalization in their desperate time of need.


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