PETALING JAYA: Refugee rights organisations have hailed UNHCR’s decision to halt the cessation process for Chin refugees, but raised the need for more solutions to support the community.
Refuge for Refugees co-founder Heidy Quah commended UNHCR for taking “a great step forward”, and suggested that immediate steps be taken in regards to Chin refugees who already had their refugee cards taken away and those who had returned to Myanmar since the previous policy took effect in Aug 2018.
“With the cessation policy reversed, we need to hold UNHCR accountable to ensure that those who are still in the country will immediately receive the protection they need, and give immediate appointments to them to open up their cases once again,” she said.
“It’s also extremely important for the community and civil society organisations to be briefed on what it means moving forward for the community,” Quah added, and called for all parties to be ready to support the community during this new transition.
A spokesman for Dignity for Children, a school for underprivileged children in Kuala Lumpur, said they are delighted by UNHCR’s decision and hope it would not be revoked or changed, especially for the sake of children.
“We have many Chin students, and we hope that they will be able to continue studying and preparing for a bright future. Our desire is that all children have the means, via education and opportunities, to grow and determine their own lives,” she said.
UNHCR had announced in a statement on March 14 that it is reversing its earlier decision to end refugee protections for ethnic Chins, which would have seen many being forced to return to Myanmar despite reports of continued violence.
The statement noted that the policy reversal is based on “a number of new reports and assessments which did not support its original conclusion of fundamental and durable changes in Chin State and Sagaing Region”.
It also added that UNHCR recognised “specific concerns raised by the Chin community and civil society organisations”, and that no Chin refugees had yet lost their refugee status as a result of the revised processing approach.
In a later statement, UNHCR said that Chin refugees who have had their cards withdrawn since the previous policy took effect will be reissued standard UNHCR documentation.
How UNHCR's "cessation" policy affects Chin refugees
Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network (APRRN) Secretary-General Themba Lewis said the main challenges for UNHCR would include regaining the trust of the community and ensuring that they receive protection services.
“When you discuss cessation or take the first steps in enacting cessation, you trigger a sense of risk and threat of repatriation, and that can drive refugees underground.
“There needs to be efforts to rebuild the trust between Chin refugees and UNHCR, and make sure that people who need services come forward,” he said.
In Oct 2018, a R.AGE investigation revealed an increasing number of mental health issues including anxiety, depression and suicide ideation in the Chin community after the announcement of the policy to end refugee protections.
R.AGE also found dozens of Chins who had their UNHCR cards revoked with little or no warning during this period, leaving them essentially “illegal” immigrants and struggling for access to jobs and basic services.
Lewis advised stakeholders to learn from cessation processes around the world to ensure continuous protection for refugee communities in the future.
“The most critical piece moving forward is to recognise the failures of communication that were endemic in this situation, and use it as a tool to undo failure, such as by creating monthly meetings with the refugee communities who will contribute their perspectives and to the decision-making process.
“It would mean a much more open dialogue, and that can only lead to positive outcomes,” he added.
Refugee expert Themba Lewis explains the guidelines for a “cessation” process
Migrants’ rights group Tenaganita extended its gratitude via a statement to the new UNHCR Malaysia representative Thomas Albrecht for the increased level of engagements being carried out with the communities, and reiterated the obligation for the Malaysian government, as a UN member state, to protect and support the rights and welfare of all individuals in the country.
“Refugees face continuous struggles and challenges with having to navigate life in Malaysia, where they are still deprived of many basic human rights,” said Tenaganita.
They called on the Malaysian government to “step up on its obligations to work on engagements with Myanmar and within ASEAN” to secure durable solutions in terms of socio-economic and academic opportunities, as well as land and social security for returnees.
“A next step forward could also include seeking opportunities to appeal for more resettlement opportunities for the Chins, especially for vulnerable cases such as unaccompanied minors and individuals with serious medical needs.”
The reversal of the cessation process comes after the Chin community and refugee advocate organisations raised concerns on the return to Myanmar due to reports of ongoing conflict.
Earlier this year, R.AGE collaborated with several civil society organisations to launch The Chin Up Project, an online video project to highlight issues faced by the community and petition the Malaysian government for more durable solutions for refugees in the country.