Refugees in Malaysia: Barely accepted and not appreciated

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)defines refugees as those who have “fled war, violence, conflict or persecution and have crossed an international border to find safety in another country”.

Additionally, the 1951 Refugee Convention defines a refugee as “someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion”.

Like many countries around the world, Malaysia has been opening it doors to refugees. Currently, more than 80% of refugees comprise of those from Myanmar, with the rest coming from countries such as Yemen, Pakistan and Iraq.

Nevertheless, numbers alone say little once the socio-economic well-being of refugees is taken into consideration.

Should a country’s attitude towards refugees be judged by how many of them it welcomes into their borders, or how much it strives to integrate them into its society? The answer should be the latter.

The interesting case of Malaysia is that as much as it opens its doors to refugees, it is actually not a party to the United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention, nor its 1967 protocol.

This means that Malaysia lacks the legal infrastructure to manage refugees. It is not obliged to provide for them in areas such as employment and education. In terms of documentation, refugees are issued a UNHCR card merely to signify that they are under the protection of that programme.

It is not an official document, meaning it in no way reduces the risk of deportation. The psychological effects of such documentation on refugees due to the resultant uncertainty is (and should be) enough to galvanise support for providing these refugees with basic legal rights.

In fact, in their manifesto leading to the 2018 general election, the newly-elected Pakatan Harapan government specifically vowed to “ratify the 1951 International Convention on Refugees so that refugees who escape from war-torn countries and arrive in Malaysia are given proper assistance”.

Malaysia has yet to ratify the convention. Not ratifying it in effect means that refugees in Malaysia are technically not seen as “refugees”. With just a UNHCR card, they are stuck in legal purgatory.

On Feb 15 this year, Klang MP Charles Santiago gave a reason for why refugees should have access to basic healthcare, employment and education.

The fact that international protocols recognising refugees have not been ratified should not excuse us from turning a blind eye to the welfare of refugees in Malaysia. After all, what happens if, for example, Rohingya Muslims cannot return to Myanmar in the long-term?

They become our humanitarian responsibility. Since refugees have no legal status in Malaysia, not being able to officially work, they often work in low-paying menial jobs where they are easily exploited.

Now, credit must be given where it is due. In March of 2017, the then ruling government, Barisan Nasional, launched a pilot project in collaboration with the UNHCR to allow Rohingya Muslims to work in Malaysia with a temporary working permit.

Successful applicants to the programme were placed within selected companies in the plantation and manufacturing industries. The downside of this pilot programme was that it was only open to Rohingya Muslims.

This month, Mercy Malaysia opened its second health facility in Cox Bazar in Bangladesh, providing free medicine and medical consultation to Rohingyas seeking refuge there. These efforts should be seen as motivation for taking better care of refugees in Malaysia.

As simplistic as this sounds, the only difference between Malaysian citizens and refugees in Malaysia is (the lack of) official documentation. The latter group, like us, also seek to make ends meet, to provide for ourselves and families, to earn an income and etc.

Signing the 1951 Refugee Convention is hugely symbolic in that it registers the government’s interest and seriousness in taking care of refugees in Malaysia.

For now however, the position on refugees is ambiguous at best. They are allowed entry into the country but not into the society. This paradox is not sustainable from a social cohesion standpoint.

Being practically treated as illegal immigrants by the government risks resentment being shown by ordinary Malaysians towards these refugees.

Should we continue to treat refugees as a stumbling block or might we stumble without their contribution to the economy?

Syed Imad Alatas is an FMT reader.

The views expressed by the writer do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.