Time for a comprehensive policy for refugees

I refer to the recent statement by Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah about allowing refugees access to employment, education and healthcare in the country.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), a refugee is “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.”

While migrants come to this country voluntarily to search for better economic prospects, refugees are forced to flee their home countries to save their lives.

Globally, there are 25.4 million registered refugees. Malaysia hosted 163,860 UNHCR-registered refugees and asylum seekers as of end-December 2018. Refugees live in urban or semi-urban areas throughout Peninsular Malaysia with a high concentration in the Klang Valley, Penang and Johor.

The following are four crucial issues that refugees in Malaysia have been facing for years.


Malaysia is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 protocol. Therefore, refugee status is not recognised by the state. UNHCR, which began operations in 1975, is the only agency that conducts refugee status determination (RSD) process and assists resettlement to third countries and voluntary repatriation.

In the absence of a national legislative and administrative framework, refugees are considered undocumented (or “illegal”) migrants, or Pendatang Asing Tanpa Izin under the 1959/1963 Immigration Act.

Despite that, there is the National Security Council Directive 23 that protects UNHCR cardholders against arrest. Still, numerous cases have been reported of refugees being extorted and detained by enforcement agencies.

Activists also estimate that there are 120,000 to 160,000 undocumented people who have well-founded asylum claims but remain unregistered due to the lack of access to UNHCR.

Without registration and UNHCR cards, refugees are more vulnerable to exploitation with very limited avenue, if any, to seek redress.


In 2016, UNHCR said the total working-age population (16-59) of refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia was 123,753. This readily available labour pool is a tiny proportion of the workforce in Malaysia which relies heavily on migrant workers, yet their contribution to the economy cannot be ignored.

The right to work for refugees was previously granted through the issuance of IMM13 permits by the home ministry. With the discretion of the minister, this temporary residence permit allowed refugees to work and access education and healthcare. IMM13 permits were issued to some of the Moro, Acehnese and recently Syrian refugees.

In 2017, a pilot project to allow 300 Rohingya refugees to work in plantation and manufacturing sectors for three years was launched. Even though this act was commendable, such rights should be extended to all refugees regardless of their religion and nationality because all of them need to earn a livelihood.

Without the right to work, refugees are trapped in modern slavery with low or unpaid wages and notorious work conditions that perpetuate human rights abuse, especially trafficking and forced labour.


UNHCR data shows that only 30% of 23,823 of those in the school-going age group are enrolled through an informal parallel system in under-resourced community learning centres due to lack of access to public schools. Although there is a new ruling by the education ministry that allows stateless children to go to school, the bureaucratic process doesn’t let them benefit.

Without the right to proper education, both girls and boys may end up in underage marriages because their future is uncertain. Refugees, like any other people, have potential that needs to be honed so that they become educated and contribute to the society and country.

Studies have shown that social capital such as skills and qualifications which are acquired through education are essential in facilitating refugees’ return to their homeland if the circumstances permit. They can also provide human resources needed by the host country.


The health ministry currently provides a 50% discount on the foreigner’s rate fees to UNHCR cardholders at public hospitals. Unfortunately, an insurance scheme called Refugee Medical Insurance was stopped from June 16 last year.

Given that there is a hike in treatment cost for foreigners of 230%, RM1,400 for surgery is still unaffordable for refugees who struggle to put food on the table, especially as they are not allowed to work.

The exorbitant cost and fear for their security causes them to shun healthcare. This also means that they could have missed vaccination programmes which would bring negative implications for themselves and the public.

Although some NGOs play an active role in providing healthcare, the limited resources hinder them from providing comprehensive primary care, let alone secondary care services.

In a nutshell, a comprehensive policy should address the four crucial issues related to documentation, employment, education and healthcare for better protection of this population and the potential benefits to Malaysia.

Despite being a non-signatory country to the international refugee convention, with the current legislative framework, Malaysia is still able, in fact highly urged, to formulate its own national asylum policy.

Refugees have been living in Malaysia for years. Turning a blind eye towards them will not solve the issues that they face, which also have a negative effect on the country.

Since they are temporarily living in Malaysia before being resettled in third countries or returning home voluntarily, their potential should be tapped for the benefit of Malaysian society and the country.

Aslam Abd Jalil is an FMT reader.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.