Looking for a place to call home

  • Letters
  • Sunday, 20 Jun 2004

Malaysia is not a signatory to the 1951 United Nations Convention on Refugees and has no legislation differentiating a refugee from an illegal immigrant. Yet, there are people living as refugees here. IVY SOON reports on the situation in conjunction with World Refugee Day today. 

HARTINI is not quite sure what awaits her in Canada, where she will begin life anew with her husband and two sons. But she left for the country equipped with a brand new electric rice cooker, and blender. She hopes she will be able to prepare her family’s favourite meals in their new home. 

Hartini, her husband Saifuddin, two sons and about 15 other Acehnese refugees were gathered at the compound of the UNHCR building in Jalan Bellamy, Kuala Lumpur, recently. They were waiting to leave for KLIA, where they would board the flight that would take them to Canada. 

Family members and friends had come to bid them farewell, and they chatted and passed babies to be hugged and kissed over the fence that divided them. 

“We have no choice. We were forced to leave Aceh because people were accusing me of this and that. If I had not left, I would not be standing here. I’d be dead, hanging from a tree,” said Saifuddin who made his way to Penang last year. They then took a bus to Kuala Lumpur and eventually came to the UNHCR to seek asylum and be recognised as refugees.  

Saifuddin was one of the almost 250 people (mostly Acehnese) rounded up by the police as they approached the UNHCR building last August, and had been at the immigration detention camp in Malacca since then. He was only released to the UNHCR on the day of his departure. 

Leaving for foreign Canada is “better than the camp, it was dirty and horrible,” he said. 

Saifuddin and Hartini do not speak English and have no idea what kind of work they can do in Canada. They are scared, they said, but they have no choice. “We cannot go back to Aceh. What can we do, we have to leave, dah terpaksa.”  

Still, they are thankful for the chance to start life anew. Their quest to escape the dangers they faced back home had ended well, unlike some of their friends on the other side of the fence who are still waiting to be recognised as refugees and are living as illegal immigrants without legal rights. 

Malaysia is not a signatory to the 1951 United Nations Convention on Refugees, and has no legislation that differentiates a refugee from an illegal immigrant. 

As such, Malaysia does not conduct refugee status determination. This is undertaken by the UNHCR office here on the mandate entrusted to it by the international community to protect civilians fleeing from danger.  

The UNHCR defines refugees as persons who are outside their country and cannot return owing to a well-founded fear of persecution because of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a particular social group.  

Asylum seekers are people who flee their own country to seek sanctuary in a second state and apply for asylum, or the right to be recognised as bona fide refugees. 

The number of people seeking asylum with the UNHCR here has increased from 2000 in 2002 to 15,000 in 2003. The Rohingyas from Myanmar constitute a large group of asylum seekers here. Others include the Mon and Karen minorities from Myanmar, and people from the Middle East and some war-torn African countries. 

The Acehnese and Rohingyas are granted temporary protection as a group, but asylum seekers go through refugee status determination as individuals. There are currently 760 refugees recognised by UNHCR in Malaysia. About 500 were re-settled to third countries last year, and the UNHCR hopes to achieve a similar number this year. 

“Between 7000 and 9000 Acehnese have registered with UNHCR since Jan 2003 because of the situation in Aceh,” said the UNHCR head in Malaysia, Volker Turk.  

Thousands reportedly fled Aceh when the Indonesian government declared martial law there in May last year to crush the Free Aceh Movement, which has been fighting for an independent state. More than 10,000 have died since the separatist conflict began in 1976. 

“We have a mandate to protect civilians, not protect people involved in armed activities. Given the situation in Aceh, UNHCR has issued to them (Acehnese asylum seekers) documents on a temporary protection basis until the situation there changes, until people can go back on a voluntary basis,” Turk said. 

“We think that as a group, there is no need to go into a very complicated legal process. What we do is to verify their identity and whether or not they have been engaged in armed activities. Once that is done, we are satisfied that there is a need for international protection.”  

Acehnese asylum seekers registered with the UNHCR are accorded temporary protection once their identity has been verified. They are considered de facto refugees, or in a refugee-like situation, because they cannot return to their country of origin. 

Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar, however, has reiterated that Malaysia views the situation in Aceh as Indonesia's internal problem and is firm about not interfering in Indonesia's domestic affairs.  

A high-level delegation from the UNHCR met with Malaysian authorities last year following the arrest of nearly 250 immigrants, including Saifuddin, as they approached the UNHCR building last August, and the subsequent deportation of more than 70 Acehnese detainees.  

Malaysia, however, argued that our domestic laws do not recognise refugees and that the Acehnese immigrants had entered the country seeking employment and not refuge. 

“We have turned the page on that, and have started a very constructive dialogue with the authorities. We'll see how it develops. 

“We cannot function without the cooperation of the government. UNHCR has a humanitarian mandate, which was given to us by the international community, so we have to implement that mandate. It is a responsibility that the international community has entrusted onto us, and of course we can only implement it in partnership with the government,” Turk said. 

The other group granted temporary protection by the UNHCR in Malaysia is the Rohingya, who are people from the Arakan state in western Myanmar. Being Muslims in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar, the Rohingya say they were denied full citizenship rights and were being persecuted by their government. About 250,000 Rohingyas have fled Myanmar, and the government in Yangon has refused to take them back. 

”It is difficult to put exact figures but we estimate the Rohingya population here to be about 10,000, and they have been here for a long time,” said Turk. 

“The UNHCR also has a mandate for stateless persons. If people are stateless, we have to look into their situation, and so UNHCR considers them to be a group in need of international protection. They have temporary protection until their situation changes, or until the government in Myanmar agrees to take them back on a voluntary basis under internationally recognised procedures.” 

Relatively fewer Rohingya have been re-settled in third countries. There has been no particular re-settlement programme for them because the focus was on the Vietnamese for a long time. 

“Now, it is difficult for other countries to accept them because they have been here for a long time, and because they are Muslims. 

“There was also hope that the situation in Myanmar would change and that their citizenship would be recognised,” said Turk. 

Meanwhile, they live here as illegal immigrants although they are recognised to be in a refugee-like situation by UNHCR. They have no legal right to healthcare, and their children cannot attend school. They risk being caught for flouting immigration laws and subsequently deported. Although their lives here are in a state of limbo, many keep coming back. 

The public is largely unaware of their plight, although the desperate act of four Rohingyas who attacked the Myanmar embassy recently made the headlines. 

Until Malaysia accedes to the 1951 United Nations Convention on Refugees, the government is not obligated to extend to the Rohingya or other refugees the rights to work, housing, education, public relief and assistance, or freedom of movement within the country.  

Under the Convention, refugees are also accorded the right to not be forcibly returned to a country in which he has reason to fear persecution, and the right to be exempted from penalties for illegal entry into the country. 

“If Malaysia ratified the convention, it would be the one determining whether they were refugees or economic migrants,” said Turk. 

“So far only Timor Leste, Cambodia, the Philippines and China have ratified the convention in this region. The largest refugee population, however, is in Asia, with Pakistan handling 1.1 million, and Iran 985,000.” 

Last year, Datuk Rais Yatim who was then Minister in the Prime Minister’s office, said that Malaysia has no intention of codifying laws on the status of refugees and procedures for asylum seekers mainly because of our policy of not interfering in the domestic problems of our neighbours in the region.  

Malaysia has a series of understandings with Indonesia, the Philippines, Bangladesh and others to ask people seeking asylum here to return home.  

Although legal protection for refugees is lacking, we have a long history of serving as temporary host to people fleeing their own countries because of persecution and conflict. 

The UNHCR liaison office was first opened here in 1975 to assist Malaysia in receiving and repatriating some 250,000 Vietnamese boat people. 

In the 1980s, Malaysia received and integrated about 50,000 Muslim Filipino refugees in Sabah. 

In the 1990s, UNHCR helped Malaysia to accommodate and attend to Muslim refugees from countries such as Cambodia, Myanmar and Bosnia. 

Related Stories:Only 145 have signed UN convention on refugeesJust trying to stay alive Displaced and defenceless 

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