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Malaysia: Fourth day of crackdown on illegal migrants

Briefing Notes, 4 March 2005

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Ron Redmond to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 4 March 2005, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

With the crackdown on tens of thousands of illegal migrants in Malaysia in its fourth day, we urge the Malaysian government to continue to demonstrate its strong humanitarian commitment and cooperation with UNHCR despite some conflicting media reports.

On Thursday, Malaysia's Deputy Prime Minister was quoted by media as saying the government would take action against illegal migrants in the country even if they carried UNHCR documentation. As background, there have been media reports saying UNHCR had been issuing refugee protection letters 'indiscriminately' ahead of the crackdown a charge we strongly refute.

UNHCR stresses that it has stringent procedures in place for registration, verification, interviewing and then determination of refugee status. This ensures that only people who require international protection by the international community are documented by UNHCR.

However, we are aware and are concerned that false documents are in circulation. We have appealed to law enforcement officials to contact us immediately to verify whether documents carried by asylum seekers are genuine and have set up two 24-hour hotlines in our operations room in Kuala Lumpur for that purpose.

According to latest reports, more than a dozen people with UNHCR documentation 11 Acehnese from Indonesia and 2 Rohingyas, an ethnic minority from Myanmar have been arrested in the roundup and sent to immigration detention centres. We swiftly responded by sending UNHCR staff to the centres to ensure the refugees are not deported. We hope the authorities will release them shortly.

We continue to appeal to all officials involved in the crackdown to respect people registered and documented by UNHCR and to refrain from taking any action against groups of concern to us.

Earlier this week we were encouraged to see press reports quoting the Malaysian Home Minister as saying foreigners in Malaysia who cannot return to their homeland due to political pressure should be allowed to remain in the country and work. The minister reportedly emphasised that Malaysia could not allow them to become beggars, and that they could be absorbed into the foreign labour workforce. UNHCR would see this as a genuine gesture by the Malaysian government to protect persons of concern to UNHCR.

There are some 35,000 people of concern to UNHCR in Malaysia including ethnic groups from Myanmar, people fleeing from Indonesia's Aceh province and other nationalities.




UNHCR country pages

Malaysia: Refugees helping themselves

Many Malaysians are astonished to learn that there are refugees living in their country. That's how invisible most of the 67,800 refugees in Malaysian towns and cities are. They don't live in camps, but in low-cost flats and houses alongside the homes of Malaysians. The refugees, overwhelmingly from Myanmar, live in tight-knit groups with as many as 20 or 30 people in one small flat.

As in many other Asian countries, even official UNHCR refugee status does not always afford adequate protection. Refugees are not allowed to work legally, so are subject to exploitation in dirty, dangerous and difficult jobs that locals do not want.

More than in many other countries, refugees in Malaysia have banded together to help themselves in the absence of official services. UNHCR, non-governmental organizations and volunteers support these initiatives, which include small crafts businesses, as well as schools and clinics, but they are largely driven by the refugees themselves.

Malaysia: Refugees helping themselves

Surviving in the City: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia Play video

Surviving in the City: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Malaysia is a largely urban country, with 60 per cent of the population living in cities. Life for a refugee in Kuala Lumpur is challenging. Refugees cannot work legally and most live in fear of detention, despite having received a refugee card from UNHCR.