KNOW THE MYTHS FROM THE FACTS: Nine Things About the Refugee Issue in Malaysia

UNHCR notes with concern the article published in Sinar Harian dated 23 March 2021, entitled “UNHCR has deviated from its function” written by columnist Norman Fernandez. The article presented numerous misinformation regarding the refugee situation in Malaysia which we fear, adds to the confusion on the ground regarding this issue.

We would like to provide a Factcheck in response to that:

Fact 1: Refugees and undocumented migrants are different

Refugees are people who had no choice but to flee their country because of war and human rights abuses. They cannot return home safely. These are the people that UNHCR is mandated to protect.

Undocumented migrants entered the country without proper documents, usually in order to seek work. They still enjoy the protection of their own Governments, and their lives or freedoms will not be at risk if they are deported.

Fact 2: Yearly new arrivals of asylum-seekers have actually decreased since 2013

According to data obtained from refugees, total numbers of overall new arrivals have declined significantly since 2013 until now. In 2013, the number of new arrivals peaked with 28,434 newly arriving asylum-seekers. Numbers in later years have shown a decline.

UNHCR statistics do not reflect new arrivals into the country. The statistics show how many people UNHCR is able to register, and not if those people had newly arrived.

As of end January 2021, there are some 178,710 refugees and asylum-seekers registered with UNHCR in Malaysia. This includes refugees who have been in Malaysia for decades.

UNHCR shares statistical data with various Government Ministries and Agencies on a monthly basis.

Fact 3: The UNHCR card confirms a person’s need for international protection

UNHCR documentation serves only one purpose, which is to recognize a refugee and asylum-seeker’s need for international protection.

The UNHCR documentation helps protect refugees and asylum-seekers from deportation to their country of origin where their freedom or lives may be at risk. This is known as the customary international law principle of non-refoulement which is binding for all states, regardless of whether they have signed the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees or not

The UNHCR card is not a driving license, a legal document, a travel document, or a residency permit. It does not give the person immunity from the law.

Fact 4: Refugees are subject to the country’s laws

UNHCR card holders are not above the law. Refugees are required to respect the laws and regulations of their country of refuge.

However, they will not automatically lose their refugee card if they commit a crime. There are reasons when a person can be excluded from international protection, such as if they have committed a crime against peace, a war crime, or a crime against humanity, or other serious reasons.

But if they commit crimes not of a serious nature, and have been found guilty through a legal proceeding, then a refugee who commits such a crime is expected to undergo due process of law, like any other person living in the country.

Fact 5: UNHCR seeks to prevent forced deportation of refugees, not undocumented immigrants

Every country has the sovereign right to manage illegal immigration on its territory, including deporting those who violate immigration laws. But under customary international law, every country – regardless of whether or not they are party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its associated 1967 Protocol – has a responsibility to not forcibly return refugees to a situation where their lives or freedoms may be at risk.

UNHCR seeks access to immigration detention centres so that we can help separate refugees from undocumented immigrants. Once we have determined who is in need of international protection and should not be returned, authorities can proceed with immigration formalities for undocumented immigrants, while remaining confident that Malaysia is upholding international human rights principles with respect to refugees and asylum seekers.

Fact 6: Resettlement departures decreased in 2020 largely because of COVID-19

Resettlement departures to third countries decreased dramatically in 2020 largely because all over the world, international travel was stopped due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, it is important to understand that resettlement depends on the available number of places for resettlement offered by third countries. It is prioritised for highly vulnerable refugees and those in need of urgent protection. Less than 5% of the world’s refugees will receive a place in a third country each year.

From 2008 – June 2020, over 88,500 refugees, including Rohingya refugees, have been resettled from Malaysia to third countries.

Fact 7: The Malaysian Government has a responsibility to protect refugees. As do we all.

Refugee protection is a shared responsibility. It is the primary responsibility of Governments to protect the human rights of all people on their territory, including refugees – even if that country is not party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its associated 1967 Protocol.

Governments are supported in this effort by the international community, civil society, private sector, and refugee communities. This shared responsibility includes in helping refugees access healthcare, obtain skills and education, and be self-reliant, and assisting in the welfare needs of most vulnerable refugees.

Fact 8: UNHCR supports Governments’ efforts in protecting and assisting refugees

UNHCR’s primary purpose is to safeguard the rights and well-being of people who have been forced to flee. We do not do this alone. Wherever we are present in the world, we support Governments and work with partners and communities to ensure that everybody has the right to seek asylum and find safe refuge in another country.

In Malaysia, for over four decades, UNHCR has supported the Government of Malaysia in managing the complex challenges of refugee protection. This is done through close engagement with Ministries and Agencies in a variety of areas. One example is of engagement is through the ongoing joint task force where we explore a framework to manage refugees, including how the Government can be involved in issuance of documentation for refugees.

Another excellent example of close cooperation is in healthcare, where UNHCR and the Government of Malaysia worked together in supporting the country’s Covid-19 response in preventing infection from spreading among the communities. As Malaysia begins the implementation of its national immunisation programme, UNHCR stands ready to continue providing support where it affects refugees and asylum-seekers.

UNHCR is fully committed in our on-going cooperation with the Government to find ways that better

protect refugees which, at the same time, address any legitimate national concerns. We are in a constructive dialogue with the Malaysian government in this respect.

Fact 9: Refugees want to go home when it is safe

Refugee protection does not mean refugees will stay here permanently. A person ceases to be a refugee when the conditions that forced them to be a refugee no longer exist. For most refugees, this means being able to return home when it is safe to do so. But until they can, they have no choice but to remain temporarily in a country of asylum.

Giving refugees protection does not mean giving them land or shelter or handouts. In all of UNHCR’s experience, we have seen that when refugees are empowered to be self-reliant, they take care of themselves and they are able to contribute to local communities where they live. Refugee protection means giving the space for the private sector, NGOs, civil society, international organisations and refugee communities themselves to work together in helping refugees access healthcare, education, and skills so that they are not a burden to anyone.

Refugee protection means allowing them a place to live in safety and dignity until long term solutions are found for their plight.