PETALING JAYA: The ethnic Myanmar Chins who have had to return their UNHCR cards are asylum seekers, not refugees, according to a statement by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Malaysia.
UNHCR issued the statement in response to R.AGE’s “Refugees No More” multimedia documentary, which highlighted a reported increase in mental health issues including depression, anxiety, and suicide ideation among the Chin community since UNHCR announced its policy to end refugee protection for Chins by end 2019.
“For the last year, UNHCR has been assessing the individual circumstances of over 16,000 Chin asylum seekers to see if they need refugee protection.
“Most of (the people featured in the story) are not refugees because they do not meet the international definition of a ‘refugee’,” says UNHCR.
According to UNHCR’s policies, refugees are people who have been verified by UNHCR through a refugee status determination (RSD) process, while asylum seekers are those who have applied for refugee status, but have not been through the full RSD process.
In the past, UNHCR issued identical cards to both refugees and asylum seekers, a practice it has since stopped.
“I don’t think it makes a difference if they are asylum seekers or refugees,” said Heidy Quah, founder of Refuge for Refugees, an NGO that provides education for refugees.
“Refugees flee because of conflict, and asylum seekers are those who haven’t been granted refugee status yet.
“They all want to go home, but they know it’s not safe for them. They’re not in Malaysia to seek a better life, but they’re here because they want to stay safe,” she added.
The UNHCR statement said that since 2017, it has started individual assessments of Chin asylum seekers to see if they need refugee protection.
The statement also says that a separate scheme was started in August 2018 to re-assess Chin refugees’ need for refugee protection.
This scheme was announced through a letter sent out to the Chin community on June 13, 2018, with the heading “Community Messaging on Chin Cessation Process”.
According to that announcement, Chin refugees who go to UNHCR after Aug 1 to renew their UNHCR cards would be given two options: to extend their existing card until Dec 31, 2019, after which their individual refugee status will automatically cease, or go through an interview to determine if they are still in need of international refugee protection.
If they do not pass the latter, their UNHCR card will automatically cease and not be extended.
“It has come to our attention that some Chin refugees have been ‘compelled’ and encouraged by UNHCR Malaysia staff to pick the option of opting for automatic card renewal until end of 2019, instead of the other available option of appealing their cases,” said migrant rights organisation Tenaganita in a statement to R.AGE.
“We are concerned to see that most cases within the Chin community are rarely classified as vulnerable cases, despite the critical conditions faced by certain individuals, such as serious health issues.
“This brings up the question on what then would warrant as a vulnerable case,” the statement continued.
While refugees are given the two options, the Chin community says that asylum seekers are not given a fair opportunity to present their claims.
“Since 2017, UNHCR started ‘Simplified RSD’, which is a shorter interview and assessment,” said Alliance of Chin Refugees chairman Mung Khat.
“Each person is only given about 15 minutes meeting with the UNHCR officer. Many of our asylum seekers are angry with the RSD (officers) because they do not want to listen to their case, as they are supposed to do,” he added.
In UNHCR’s statement, it defended its new policies and pointed out that no Chin refugees have yet had their refugee status withdrawn.
The statement did not say how many Chin asylum-seekers have had their cards withdrawn.
Civil society organisations lauded UNHCR for its role in protecting the refugee community in the country, but suggested that UNHCR engage them by carrying out proper discussions and consultations before implementing major decisions that affect the refugee community.
“To request the return of a group of refugees to the poorest region of Myanmar, when no announcement by the Myanmar government on ceasing the military brutality in the Chin state or to initiate the development of infrastructure for socioeconomic and academic opportunities for the returnees, would be detrimental to the community,” said Tenaganita.
“Despite claims of a thorough UNHCR report indicating the stabilising conditions of the Chin state, the communities are doubtful due to (lack of) transparency in the sharing of such report,” the statement continued.
Tenaganita called for UNHCR Malaysia to “at least consider a postponement and review of the (cessation) policy in light of the various reports”.
“The ideal situation is that the Chins will go home when things are safe and conducive, but giving them such a short time of one and a half years is basically throwing them into the deep end,” said Quah.
“I know that (UNHCR) has difficult decisions to make, but how the refugees are supported from hereon makes a huge difference,” she added.
Read R.AGE's multimedia story "Refugees No More" at rage.my/refugeesnomore.
Reply to query from The Star
Attributable to the UNHCR Spokesperson in Kuala Lumpur
19 October 2018
1. As part of its global mandate, UNHCR is constantly monitoring conditions in countries where refugees come from. We do this for two reasons:
a) to assess whether asylum-seekers need our protection as ‘refugees’; and
b) to assess whether people already recognized as refugees still need our mandated support, or whether they can return home safely.
2. The Star articles unhelpfully confuse UNHCR’s procedures for asylum-seekers (called “Refugee Status Determination” or RSD), with new procedures to review the status of people already recognized as refugees.
Prior to publication, UNHCR pointed out this important distinction to The Star but, regrettably, this is not reflected in the published articles.
3. For the last year, UNHCR has been assessing the individual circumstances of over 16,000 Chin asylum-seekers to see if they need refugee protection.
These people feature in the recent Star media coverage.
Most of them are not refugees because they do not meet the international definition of a ‘refugee’.
UNHCR uses these standard RSD procedures all around the world. They are also used by countries that have signed the Refugee Convention. They are not unique to Chin in Malaysia.
4. Since August 2018, UNHCR has also introduced a new scheme that would allow approximately 15,000 Chin refugees (as opposed to asylum-seekers) to have their personal circumstances assessed to see if they still need UNHCR’s protection
as refugees. These are new procedures and, contrary assertions in the Star articles, no one has had his or her refugee status withdrawn by UNHCR to date. Refugees who elect not to have their circumstances assessed by UNHCR, will still be allowed to retain full refugee protection from UNHCR until 31 December 2019.
5. UNHCR will continue to work closely with the Chin refugee communities, and their supporters, to find durable solutions for people affected by the new procedures. These solutions, typically, include resettlement for some, local integration
for others, and an opportunity to return to Myanmar for those who choose to do so. As we explore these options for the Chin community, we hope that the Government of Malaysia will allow the Chin to remain on a temporary legal basis, in line with its commitments in Article 35 of its election Manifesto.
6. UNHCR is convinced that if refugees, including the Chin community, are allowed to remain and work lawfully in Malaysia, they will have better health and education. They will also be more self-reliant and better able to cope with the day
to-day uncertainties of life in Malaysia, that the Star has identified. This approach would also help Malaysia in manage the complex challenges of mixed migration. It would be a ‘win-win’ for both Malaysia and refugees.
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