KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia must have policies to recognise the rights of refugee women and children as they are especially vulnerable, urged a group of human rights organisations and activists at a conference held on Saturday (March 2) in conjunction with International Women's Day.
"Refugees and asylum seekers, especially the women and children, are easily exploited because they are unable to seek legal action under Malaysian law," said executive director of migrants' rights NGO Tenaganita Glorene A. Das.
"There are an estimated over 200,000 asylum seekers and refugees in Malaysia, including those who are not registered, who are at risk of prosecution and gender-based violence," she added.
Das related how a three-day-old baby was picked up from the hospital and sent to a detention centre, due to a notice order by the Health Ministry to detain undocumented people.
"This notice order is still being implemented, and it can lead to human trafficking cases because they cannot stay here and yet it is not safe for many of these people to return to their country of origin due to safety concerns," she shared.
Das was speaking at the inaugural Women's Conference, which was organised by the Myanmar Ethnic Women Refugee Organisation (MEWRO) and supported by Tenaganita.
The one-day conference, aimed to empower local, migrant and refugee women and children, included a self-defence workshop and a working group session to draft a letter to Deputy Prime Minister and Women, Family and Community Development Minister Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, calling for policies on gender equality and to support and protect women.
MEWRO coordinator Htu Lai called for the women in power and privileged positions to advocate for those in vulnerable communities.
"We long to work, have education and work opportunities.
"Women represent half of the world's population, and therefore represent half of the world's potential. When women have a place to speak up, we can make enormous change," she said.
Petaling Jaya MP Maria Chin Abdullah called for a "paradigm shift", and asked for people to realise that refugees and migrants contribute to the economy and deserve to live in dignity and comfort.
"On a policy-level, we need to ensure that their basic rights are met in terms of employment, education, health and housing," she said in a statement.
"Malaysia should begin by ratifying the 1951 Refugee Convention and it would be the first step to ensure that Malaysia is safe and supports all people within her borders," she added.
Executive director of Lawyers for Liberty Latheefa Koya added that while Malaysia has treated refugees "fairly well", there was still more to be done.
"Malaysia has many laws that protect women, but if you don't have a passport or document, you wouldn't be likely to make a police report (if a crime has occurred)," said the lawyer and human rights activist.
"Whereas (undocumented and refugee) children are vulnerable because they cannot go to school, and this creates a generation of people who don't have rights and may be angry and resentful," she added.
She also encouraged the refugee and migrant community to be empowered in legal issues, and learn their rights as stated in immigration law.
"If you want to fight for your rights, you need to know what to say and what it is all about. When you show that you're prepared and know your rights, that's when they will take a step back."