Contributed by Tan Hui Wen, Project Head of Editorial & Publication, Bar Council Legal Aid Centre (Kuala Lumpur); and photos by Jul Indra Tofan, Administrative Assistant, Bar Council
July 2019 marked a step closer towards equal access to justice for refugees and asylum–seekers in Malaysia, when the Bar Council and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees ("UNHCR") in Malaysia launched the Refugees and Asylum–Seekers Legal Aid Scheme ("RALAS") on 4 July 2019.
The President of the Malaysian Bar, Abdul Fareed Abdul Gafoor, alongside the Deputy Representative of UNHCR Malaysia, Maja Lazic, signed the agreement at the launch ceremony, which was held at the Bar Council Legal Aid Centre (Kuala Lumpur) ("LAC KL").
The Co–Deputy Chairperson of the Bar Council National Legal Aid and Yayasan Bantuan Guaman Kebangsaan Committee, Ravi Nekoo; Chairperson of LAC KL, Collin Arvind Andrew; several legal aid lawyers; and representatives from UNHCR were also present at the official launch ceremony.
In her speech, Maja Lazic said that RALAS aims to equip lawyers with knowledge about refugees and asylum–seekers, which would enable lawyers to help empower and to assist refugees and asylum–seekers to become more self–reliant through legal means. She extended UNHCR Malaysia's appreciation for Bar Council's engagement, and added that UNHCR Malaysia looks forward to many more years of collaboration with Bar Council.
Abdul Fareed Abdul Gafoor in his speech urged more lawyers to provide legal assistance to the communities of refugees and asylum–seekers in Malaysia as there is no comprehensive framework to deal with the issues they face. He also welcomed the Government's plan to allow refugees the right to work in Malaysia.
Under the RALAS scheme, the Bar Council Legal Aid Centres in Kuala Lumpur and Penang provide comprehensive information and training to the communities –– through practical outreach sessions –– on their rights and obligations under Malaysia's legal system, particularly pertaining to employment law, criminal law, immigration law, family law, and Syariah law. In addition, the lawyers will also provide free legal consultations.
RALAS started out in October 2018 as a pilot scheme by LAC KL and UNHCR Malaysia. Thirty lawyers selected by LAC KL underwent a "Training for Trainers" programme, which encompassed areas of criminal law, immigration law, family law, Syariah law, and civil law, as well as other aspects such as UNHCR's protection mandate, the challenges faced by refugees and asylum–seekers in Malaysia, and applicable laws that could protect them.
Three training sessions were then held in Kuala Lumpur with over 150 participants from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Myanmar (Rohingya), Pakistan, Palestine, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Somalia, South Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. Many members of these communities shared that they have benefited from these training sessions.
The number of refugees and asylum–seekers registered with UNHCR in Malaysia as at the end of May 2019 stands at 124,753 refugees and 48,978 asylum–seekers –– 68% are male while 32% are female, and 43,710 are children below the age of 18. Despite the large presence of refugees and asylum–seekers in the country for several years, Malaysia remains without a properly constituted and comprehensive policy framework to deal with the treatment of such persons and the issues they face.
While there is much work to be done on giving refugees and asylum–seekers due recognition, care, and protection under Malaysian laws, it is hoped that with the RALAS scheme, more lawyers will come forward to provide pro bono legal assistance to the refugee and asylum–seeking communities in Malaysia.