Comment: Time to recognise refugees in Malaysia

PRIME Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, in a recent speech at the UN Headquarters in New York, restated Malaysia’s ongoing support for the Rohingya and the intention to continue to help by whatever means possible. Malaysia has done a lot to assist the Rohingya, probably the most persecuted minority in the world, and is currently helping over 177,000 registered refugees and asylum seekers from all over the world on an ad hoc basis. Now it is time to formalise that support with a comprehensive refugee policy framework. Lessons can be learned from Malaysia’s own history and from developments in refugee frameworks around the world.

Not to be confused with economic migrants, refugees are a distinct group who have fled here from conflict, violence and persecution in their own countries. While Malaysia has never had a formal framework that recognises refugees, we do have a history of welcoming people facing such hardship. Over the past 45 years, refugees have come and gone from Malaysia, from places as far reaching as Palestine, Syria and Bosnia. The Vietnamese “boat people”, who fled by sea following the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, arrived on Malaysian shores over the next decade. As numbers increased, the government set up a camp on Bidong Island in Terengganu. Although conditions on the island were tough, the refugees were given a place to live, provided with basic amenities and many set up small businesses, learned local languages and other skills.

Cham Muslims escaping the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia were given the option of residency when they arrived in Malaysia in the 1970s, while Filipinos fleeing conflict in Mindanao in the southern Philippines were given temporary residence and the right to work with IMM13 permits. The Acehnese who fled from Sumatra during the armed conflict in the late 1990s and early 2000s were also granted IMM13 permits on humanitarian grounds.

The IMM13 holders were allowed to legally reside in Malaysia, engage in lawful employment, register their children in government schools and access public services. The permits were normally valid for two years and were renewable. While the IMM13 permit has been discussed in relation to the Rohingya population, no consistent policy has been implemented. In 2006, the procedure of registering Rohingya refugees for the permits was stopped amid allegations of bribery and corruption. More recently, the IMM13 scheme has been extended to Syrian refugees, with a few thousand Syrians currently holding the permit in Malaysia.

What we can learn from these past experiences is that it is possible to alleviate suffering in a refugee crisis with a compassionate and practical approach. Malaysia can take in refugees, even in sizable numbers, while a long-term solution is found. All of the Vietnamese boat people have now either resettled in third countries or voluntarily returned to Vietnam.

There is no issue of “floodgates” here, as history has shown that refugees flee from their home countries primarily because of push factors, not pull factors, and refugees tend to return home when it is safe to do so. Further, the number of new refugees arriving in Malaysia in recent years has decreased dramatically. Still, the reality is that waiting for wars to end and situations in countries of origin to improve can take some time. Therefore, providing refugees with legal recognition, so that they can work legally to support themselves and their families while they are here is practical and beneficial to both Malaysia and the refugee population. A regulated situation whereby refugees are formally identified, registered and protected by the state would contribute to stability and security in the region, as well as economic growth and social cohesion within Malaysia.

Malaysia does not need to wait for ratification of the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (1951 Convention) to make a real difference to the lives of refugees in this country. The government promised to ratify the 1951 Convention in its manifesto but has not done so yet, and has faced resistance and considerable difficulty when trying to accede to other international human rights treaties. While these efforts are appreciated and it is hoped that the 1951 Convention will be ratified in due course, we must look at practical ways to improve the lives of refugees in the meantime.

Several other countries which have previously had no legislation or formal framework governing their treatment of refugees have been moving towards formalising their position and enhancing protection. Supporting refugees is not just a task for developed countries, as many developing nations, including other Muslim-majority countries, such as Jordan, Turkey and Pakistan, have demonstrated.

Jordan has shown that a previously restrictive refugee policy can be opened up within a short space of time, having improved access to education and labour markets for refugees since 2016. Pakistan has also been making strides, including adopting national policies on sustainable integration, voluntary repatriation and developing a national refugee law. Neither country has signed the 1951 Convention, but this does not stop governments making positive changes to its mechanisms of registration and protection of refugees regardless.

Uganda has one of the most progressive and generous policies in the world and currently hosts approximately one million refugees, mostly from South Sudan. Refugees are granted freedom of movement and the rights to employment, education, health and to establish their own businesses. This policy has wide ranging benefits for everyone, as refugees in lawful employment are more integrated into their new communities and pay taxes like citizens. This model of self-reliance empowers refugees to support themselves and give back to their host nation.

Turkey is a signatory to the 1951 Convention but, like Malaysia, it has primarily been the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) which has taken responsibility for the registration and determination of asylum claims. However, since 2018 the Turkish government has been implementing a handover of registration activities from the UNHCR to a fully centralised government system for all applicants.

While the experiences of other countries may not demonstrate a perfect system for every scenario, they do show that it is possible to respond in a humane, progressive and practical way to refugee crises, even when there was previously no framework in place. Helping refugees is a shared global responsibility and the international community and UN agencies stand ready to assist Malaysia in our next steps.

Malaysia needs a legal and administrative framework for refugee protection, along with practical mechanisms to register and process asylum seekers and refugees. It is encouraging that Home Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin indicated recently that Putrajaya is already negotiating a greater role for government agencies in managing refugees and asylum seekers. The government should work alongside the UNHCR to handover responsibility to the state, as has been done in Turkey. In the meanwhile, temporary rights to live, work, and access education and healthcare should be granted to all refugees.

There has been a slow trend towards accepting refugees in this country, but it is time to transform our informal acceptance into a fair, consistent and transparent policy that protects and provides for all refugees. Even without the ratification of the 1951 Convention, it is the right and proper next step for Malaysia Baharu.

Eric Paulsen is the Representative of Malaysia to the Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR).

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