On this World Refugee Day 2019 — which is observed on 20 June annually — the Malaysian Bar calls on the Government to take concrete steps to respect and uphold the rights and dignity of refugees and asylum–seekers.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (“UNHCR”) in Malaysia, these are the approximate statistics regarding refugees and asylum–seekers registered with UNHCR in Malaysia as at the end of April this year: 170,460 refugees and asylum–seekers, 68% of whom are men, while 32% are women; and 43,710 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 comprehensive policy framework to deal with the treatment of such persons, and the issues they face. Our laws do not accord refugees and asylum–seekers due recognition, care and protection. Thus, they are exposed to arrest, detention, whipping and deportation.
Refugees and asylum–seekers are yet to be recognised as a workforce in Malaysia, and continue to be denied access to lawful employment. We remind the Malaysian Government that it had pledged — in its election manifesto for the 14th General Election held in May 2018 — to “legitimise the status of refugees by providing them with UNHCR cards and ensuring their legal right to work” (see “Promise 35”), and to “ratify the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees” (see “Promise 59”).
A regional approach is crucial in dealing with concerns regarding refugees and asylum–seekers. The Malaysian Bar urges the Malaysian Government, as an active and leading member of ASEAN, to continue its dialogues with the Myanmar Government to push for a holistic and humane solution to the issues pertaining to the Rohingya.
The Malaysian Bar is concerned that human trafficking of refugees in the region continues to be on the rise. All nations in this region share a common responsibility to confront and deal with this scourge. The Malaysian Bar commends the Malaysian Government for setting up a Royal Commission of Inquiry (“RCI”) to investigate the cases of human trafficking and “death camps” uncovered in Wang Kelian, Perlis four years ago. Members of the Bar held a watching brief — albeit with limited access to the proceedings and documents — during the public hearing, which has concluded. The Bar calls for a report of the RCI’s investigations, findings and conclusions to be published in the interest of openness, transparency and accountability, and for those responsible for this heinous atrocity to be brought to task.
The Malaysian Bar also applauds the Government’s move in joining 180 other nations of the United Nations General Assembly to adopt, on 17 December 2018, the Global Compact on Refugees. We call on the Government to take the lead in implementing the provisions of this Global Compact to address refugee–related issues in the country, especially in providing access to lawful employment, education for refugee children, as well as better and affordable healthcare for refugees.
The Malaysian Bar renews its calls upon the Government to:
(1) ratify international human rights instruments, particularly the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, and its 1967 Protocol; the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons; and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness;(2) establish a designated body specialising in issues relating to refugees and asylum–seekers, which coordinates closely with the relevant ministries, including the Ministry of Home Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Education, and Ministry of Health;(3) provide for the basic needs and livelihood of refugees and asylum–seekers, including access to lawful employment;(4) provide education opportunities for children of refugees and asylum–seekers, including at government schools and religious schools, for pre–school, primary, secondary and tertiary education; and(5) ensure better access to affordable healthcare services for refugees and asylum–seekers, including extending to them the same rates of payment as Malaysians, for public health services.
The Malaysian Bar urges the Malaysian Government to demonstrate leadership on refugee issues in the region by taking cognisance of, and undertaking active steps to implement, the measures and recommendations contained in the Malaysian Bar’s memorandum entitled “Developing a Comprehensive Policy Framework for Refugees and Asylum–Seekers”, as a first step in bringing about an overall improvement in the treatment of refugees and asylum–seekers in Malaysia.
Abdul Fareed Abdul Gafoor
20 June 2019