Malaysia: UNHCR's concerns on impending crackdown on illegal migrants

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Jennifer Pagonis to whom quoted text may be attributed at today's press briefing at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

UNHCR is concerned that an impending crackdown by Malaysia on illegal migrants using a sizeable volunteer corps alongside law enforcement agencies, could place thousands of refugees and asylum seekers at risk. While we understand the government's intention to tackle the issue of illegal migrants, the operation could have an adverse effect on people of concern to us. No date has yet been set for the clampdown to start.

There are some 28,000 refugees and people of concern to us in Malaysia including 10,000 Rohingyas - an ethnic Muslim minority from Myanmar - as well as people fleeing the strife-torn Indonesia province of Aceh, and other ethnic groups who have fled from Myanmar, as well as other nationalities. Hundreds of these people live in makeshift jungle camps around the new administrative capital of Putrajaya, often living alongside illegal migrants, which makes them particularly vulnerable during any crackdown.

UNHCR will send mobile registration teams to the jungle camps in an attempt to register asylum seekers and provide them with documentation before the crackdown operation by the Malaysian authorities starts. But this will not suffice since we will not be able to cover all the groups in need of international protection in such a short time span. On the island of Penang on Malaysia's west coast, we recently finished a mobile registration exercise for over 600 refugees from Aceh.

The Malaysian government, at the highest level, has given UNHCR assurances, which we welcome, that people of concern to us will not be affected by the clampdown. However, we have misgivings about the implementation of the operation which it seems will involve 500,000 volunteers who may not have been fully informed about the protection of refugees, and also because there have been announcements that bounties will be given to officials depending on the numbers of illegals being caught.

UNHCR considers it is vital that all law enforcement agencies, including the volunteers, be issued with instructions to ensure respect for documentation issued by UNHCR and that refugees and others of concern to UNHCR are not arrested, detained or deported during this planned operation given their special circumstances.

The Malaysian government's recent declaration that they would give temporary stay permits to the 10,000 Rohingya refugees in the country was a welcome move towards improving their plight, however it now seems they will not have official government documentation before the clampdown commences.