Malaysia’s COVID-19-induced Movement Control Order (MCO) has caused severe hardships for refugees and asylum seekers in the country. Most work informally and earn daily or weekly wages, with no job protection. Many were made redundant and are now highly reliant on aid from NGOs and well-wishers.

Malaysian law lumps refugees and asylum seekers together under a broad definition of ‘illegal immigrants’, a group that has little legal protection. There were 179,520 refugees and asylum seekers registered with the UNHCR at the end of March 2020, but the number of those unregistered is said to be at least half a million.

The pandemic, difficulties brought by the MCO, the prospect of more refugee boats arriving and longstanding local grievances have led to an explosion of xenophobic sentiment towards refugees. The Rohingya are a prime target for most of the hate. These developments underscore the longstanding need for a comprehensive and transparent policy to regularise and manage refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia.

The challenges are neither new nor directly caused by the pandemic. They are the result of years of systemic policy gaps that allowed precipitating underlying issues to fester. The problem is further aggravated by stakeholders — the government, international organisations, NGOs, the private sector and refugee associations — working in silos, rather than with each other. In some cases, the relationship between these stakeholders is hamstrung due to a lack of trust.

In examining the management of refugees in Malaysia, Ariane Jeffrey aptly described it as a ‘policy of not having a policy’. There are several reasons for this. Policymakers are dead set against ratifying the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol, as ratification is seen as compromising Malaysia’s sovereign right to formulate policies on refugees and asylum seekers. There is no desire to tie Malaysia to international obligations, although Malaysia is happy to do what it can on a humanitarian basis.

Policymakers also subscribe to the floodgate theory. Any perceived softening of Malaysia’s stance on refugees and asylum seekers, it is thought, will attract more to Malaysia’s shores. There is also concern of a political backlash from voters, who worry they will have to compete with refugees for jobs and limited government resources, and that refugees will demand rights such as naturalisation in the future.

Policymakers are also aware that Malaysia is no longer just a transit point for refugees and asylum seekers but a final destination for some — especially the Rohingya.

It is in Malaysia’s interests to have a comprehensive policy in place to manage its refugees. Having a large number of unregistered foreigners in a country, with little information about their demographics, background, movement and jobs is a real security and social challenge. Some in the Rohingya community, for example, are prime recruits for extremist groups. Others have brought their communal feuds with them.

Managing the impact of the pandemic on a vulnerable, dispersed group like refugees and asylum seekers also poses a challenge. Their living conditions are less than ideal due to hygiene issues and overcrowding. A majority of those that have yet to be screened from Malaysia’s single biggest COVID-19 cluster, a religious gathering on 28 February, are Rohingya asylum seekers. They also make up a large majority of the 16,000 people in an area of Selayang, a northern municipality in Kuala Lumpur which has been put under an enhanced MCO.

Despite the efforts of refugee associations and NGOs, many were afraid to come forward and consequently were not screened for the virus. A history of neglect and abuse means that most live off the grid and are averse to authorities. This makes contact tracing difficult. The May Day arrest of several hundred undocumented migrants in an area under an enhanced MCO further complicates this task.

So, what should a refugee policy for Malaysia entail?

First, it needs to incentivise all refugees and asylum seekers to be registered in a biometric database that includes health and security checks. This can be done in collaboration with the UNHCR, which has a comprehensive Refugee Status Determination process for their cardholders.

Second, there should be limited permission for refugees to work legally with some protections. Unlike previous failed efforts, this needs to be done in consultation with the private sector and refugee associations.

Third, stakeholders must put their differences aside to develop and implement a sustainable refugee policy. It is unrealistic to expect the Malaysian government — and by extension taxpayers — to pick up the tab. The cost must be shared with international organisations and the private sector.

Down the road, policymakers should consider options like skills training, as this will help prepare refugees for resettlement in third countries or to return home if conditions permit. Malaysia should also redouble its efforts to engage with neighbouring countries to form a regional burden-sharing arrangement. There is a need for tighter border controls and a genuine effort to dismantle both foreign and local syndicates who smuggle in refugees and asylum seekers.

Malaysia can formulate such a policy through executive decisions and by amending existing laws even without signing up to the 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol. In practice, Malaysia already adheres to some of its stipulations, which is more than can be said of some signatories. Any policy should also take into account Malaysia’s particular security and political concerns. Sovereignty and national interest need not and should not be a trade-off.

With a well-thought-out policy in place, Malaysia can finally make real progress on addressing not just the plight of refugees and asylum seekers, but also the significant security and social implications of hosting large numbers of unregistered migrants. Perhaps this will go some way to nipping emerging xenophobia towards one of the most vulnerable groups in Malaysian society.

This article is published in a series partnership with The Singapore Institute of International Affairs on the novel coronavirus crisis and its impact in Southeast Asia.


This article first appeared in East Asia Forum on 18 May 2020

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