PETALING JAYA: The Malaysian government was not officially notified about the UN High Commissioner for Refugees' (UNHCR) plans to cease refugee protections for the Chin community.
The statement on Feb 19 also affirmed Malaysia's stance that it would abide by UNHCR's decisions with regards to the refugee status of the 26,000 Chin refugees in the country, a stance previously stated by Foreign Affairs Minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah.
The NSC is the government agency in charge of refugee issues in Malaysia.
Alliance of Chin Refugees chairman Mung Khat called UNHCR's lack of communication with the Malaysian government "dangerous" and "unfair".
"For UNHCR to develop its own policy without consulting the Chin community and Malaysian government is very dangerous not only for Chins but also the whole refugee population in Malaysia.
"We don't know if UNHCR shares information about the refugee community here to the Malaysian government, so if the government is making or supporting decisions without having the full information, it's not fair. UNHCR should work closely and consult with the Malaysian government so that they can get on the proper pathway to find a solution together," he said.
UNHCR was unable to respond as of press time.
According to Andrew Khoo, co-chair of the Malaysian Bar Council's Constitutional Law Committee, UNHCR does not have a legal obligation to report their policies to the government, but should do so "as such a change in policy will have far-reaching consequences for Chin refugees and asylum-seekers in Malaysia, and to facilitate discussions on how to achieve an orderly transition, possible repatriation and a lasting solution for this community."
International director of humanitarian organisation Geutanyoe Foundation Lilianne Fan, however, believes the Malaysian government should have taken the initiative to find out more as well.
"UNHCR is an important stakeholder, but should not be the only one engaged in this. I think Malaysia should proactively ask them or do its own analysis on the situation, given that there is now new armed conflict rising involving the Arakan Army in Rakhine state that is spilling over into Chin state, and a lot of displacement recently," she added.
Since the UNHCR policy was announced to the Chins on June 13, 2018, there have been calls for a review due to multiple reports of continued conflict in Chin state.
"Many Chins aren't convinced that conditions at Chin state are secure to offer them national protection, and they don't feel that they have much of a future (if they return).
"The level of involuntariness should be taken seriously, because the last thing we want to do is be a country that does forced repatriation," added Fan.
Migrants' rights NGO Tenaganita urged UNHCR to share their findings on the level of safety in Chin state, which formed the basis of their policy to end refugee protection for Chins.
"To date, the conditions of Chin state remain contested, with conflicting accounts, statements and reports published since UNHCR's announcement, including those from the UN Special Rapporteur Yanghee Lee and the Chin Human Rights Organisation.
"(We) find it very alarming that no formal report on the findings claiming a level of stability in the Chin state has been published by UNHCR, despite eight months having lapsed since the policy announcement," said Tenaganita in a statement.
Secretary-general of the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network Themba Lewis said the policy decision goes against UNHCR's own cessation guidelines.
"There are guidelines that UNHCR is meant to follow in order to implement cessation, and they are very specific about the circumstances and the consideration that needs to come in to the discussion.
"In a lot of cases that's a fairly high threshold to reach, and I think in the case of Myanmar, we are pretty far from reaching that threshold as we still have a number of very serious concerns about fundamental and enduring change in Myanmar," he added.
Lewis also noted that cessation announcements in the past were usually preceded by tripartite agreements between UNHCR, the refugees' country of origin, and the host country where the refugees have sought asylum.
He suggested that instead of pursuing cessation, other options should be considered for the Chin community, including naturalisation and providing work permits.
"Refugees that have been outside their country for a long time are often better integrated in the host communities than they are into circumstances back home, which often times have changed to a degree where they would face poverty and hardships," said Lewis.
"Alternatively, there is another very simple solution, which is to provide work permits, living permits, rights, and fundamental immigration regularisation.
"Refugees are ingenuitive, smart, and often bring skills and ideas that are innovative, and I think it makes a lot of sense economically, socially, and politically to provide some kind of regularisation for refugees."
As a non-signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, Malaysia is not legally obliged to recognise refugees or give them rights but Tenaganita has called on the state to honour its commitments on other related conventions.
"(We) would like to remind the state of its humanitarian obligations as a UN member state, and having signed relevant UN conventions such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (Cedaw) and Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).
"Malaysia must take up the commitment to protect those with justifiable reasons for seeking asylum and refuge in the country, especially women and children," said Tenaganita.
The Chins are an ethnic minority in Myanmar who fled to countries like Malaysia and India as refugees due to decades of conflict and persecution by the military junta.
On June 13, 2018, UNHCR announced a cessation process for the Chins, which would bring refugee protections for the community to an end by Jan 1, 2020.
The global policy affects about 26,000 ethnic Chin refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia, and an estimated 4,000 in India. There are also Chin refugees and asylum seekers in Thailand and Nepal.
Statement by National Security Council in response to R.AGE (Sent via email on Feb 20)
The Government of Malaysia has always been consistent in regards to its policy on refugees. Assistance provided to them is done on a case to case basis, and humanitarian factor. As such, they are allowed to remain within the country temporarily.
Malaysia, despite not being a signatory of the Refugees Convention 1951 and its 1967 Protocol, respects the principle of non-refoulement as we believe that life is precious and understand that this group of people are running for their life. (sic)
Malaysia has always worked closely with UNHCR and is currently in discussion of extending our cooperation to include screening of refugees and their cause in claiming asylum in Malaysia. In the case of a person having a valid reason of fear as per determined by UNHCR, Malaysia will try, at its very best, to extend protection to the said person, until such time that it is safe for them to return to his / her country of origin.
As mentioned before, it is very important to understand that Malaysia is a non-signatory to the 1951 Convention and Its 1967 Protocol – thus have no obligation to provide continuous protection or execute any other responsibilities as enshrined under those international instruments. The media reports on the intention of UNHCR, to withdraw the UNHCR identification card for the Chins of Myanmar has yet to be officially notified to the Malaysian Government. (sic) Therefore, the Government prefer to reserve itself from issuing any statement until UNHCR has clearly and officially notified the Government on their change in policy.
Malaysia's Immigration Act 1959 clearly stated that any non-nationals without legal documentation and authorization including UNHCR cards are categorised as illegal migrants, and they are subjected to be deported to their country of origin.
The circumstances and the reason that cause the Chins to leave their country are different than other ethnics from Myanmar. The Chins are recognised as nationals of Myanmar – making them easier to return once the cause of fleeing from their country before has ceased to exist. Based on the information shared by UNHCR, the condition in Myanmar for Chins is positively improving, thus allow them return home and start a new life there. If they wish to come back to Malaysia, they can always do so through proper procedure as economic migrant.
Malaysia would like to stress again that assistance and protection given to the refugees in Malaysia are done on humanitarian and a case to case basis. Malaysia has no intention to provide a permanent refuge for any refugees. They have to return to their country of origin once the condition that forced them to flee has subsided. Malaysia will continuously maintain its good relationship and understanding with