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As Malaysia prepares for elections, refugees are warily watching

On November 19, millions of Malaysian voters will go to the polls to decide the course of their country for the next five years.

But as Malaysians vote in a spirit of hope for the country they want to see, the 183,000 refugees who also live there are watching warily amid what appears to be a recent toughening of rhetoric towards asylum seekers and refugees.

Considered “illegal immigrants” under Malaysian law, the refugees are one of the most marginalized and vulnerable communities in the country, with no right to work or access to formal education.

Like most of its neighbors in Southeast Asia, Malaysia is not a signatory to the UN’s 1951 refugee convention or 1967 protocol, but in recent months the government of current Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob has returned applicants of asylum to Myanmar and has launched a new tracking system. for refugees and announced its commitment to close the offices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which currently deals with the protection needs of asylum seekers and refugees.

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“The presence of UNHCR offices is considered to be the biggest pull factor towards more arrivals of foreign migrants,” a cabinet minister, Abd Latiff Ahmad, said in a parliamentary response to then-opposition MP Charles Santiago. on October 7 shortly before. the house was dissolved.

Ismail Sabri, who is vice president of the United Malays National Organization, is campaigning for re-election as part of the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition against two other broad coalitions, including BN’s current partner in government, Perikatan Nasional (PN ) and Pakatan. Harapan, which won the last election in May 2018 but collapsed amid political maneuvering.

Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob seated at a long table facing a voter and surrounded by media during a campaign stop at a restaurant.
Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob (second from left) is campaigning hard to form the next government. His administration has said that he wants to close the offices of the UN refugee agency in Malaysia. [Mohd Rasfan/AFP]

Human Rights Watch deputy Asia director Phil Robertson told Al Jazeera that some see the moves as an electoral ploy.

“Many observers believe the Home Secretary is pushing this issue hard for political reasons, to try to scapegoat UNHCR for the issue, which plays well with parts of the Conservative electorate who are more xenophobic and anti-refugee,” he said. .

“It’s a real shame because refugees should not be demonized for any reason because it puts people’s lives at risk.”

‘terrible and sad’

Many refugees are alarmed by the possible closure of UNHCR offices.

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The agency not only assesses protection needs, but also helps verify the identity of people trapped in the immigration detention system, although the government has not allowed access to the centers since 2019 during the brief period in power. from Pakatan Harapan.

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James Bawi Thang Bik, representative of the Chin Refugee Alliance in Malaysia, described the move as “terrible and sad news for the refugee community.”

Myanmar people account for 85 percent of refugees in Malaysia, and the Chin from the country’s west are the second-largest group after the mostly Muslim Rohingya.

“If there is no UNHCR, they [refugees] they will have no hope, no security, and can be exploited at any time. Suicide cases could rise among refugees,” he told Al Jazeera.

A smiling boy in a yellow shirt sits on top of a white cow as other happy-looking Rohingya children gather to feed it.
Rohingya refugee children feed a slaughtered cow on the eve of Eid al-Adha at Batu Caves, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, July 9, 2022 [REUTERS/Hasnoor Hussain]

UNHCR is often the first point of call for new arrivals, who go through a series of interviews and checks with agency staff to assess whether they really need protection. Those assessed as refugees receive identity cards from the agency, and the lucky few ultimately secure resettlement elsewhere.

But the process of obtaining a card can take months and years of resettlement.

“We are afraid that the registration process will take longer than the UNHCR registration process,” said Zafar Ahmad Abdul Ghani, president of the Myanmar Rohingya Human Rights Organization in Malaysia (MEHROM). “Typically, it will take three to six years for Rohingya asylum seekers to be recognized as refugees. In some cases, more than six years.

Zafar himself was the target of a disinformation campaign that forced him into hiding in 2020 after a false Facebook post claimed he had required Malaysian citizenship for Rohingya refugees. Two years later, he and his family continue to receive death threats and harassment.

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‘Establishing a national framework’

The UN refugee agency began working in Malaysia during the Vietnam refugee crisis in the 1970s and has expanded rapidly as a result of conflicts in countries from Myanmar to Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Syria.

His colonial-era bungalow in Kuala Lumpur has been expanded several times, and the once-lush garden is covered with portable booths, parking, and a large covered building where asylum seekers wait to be interviewed and for applications to be processed. requests.

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When asked about the government’s plan to close the offices, Yante Ismail, the Kuala Lumpur-based UNHCR spokesman, told Al Jazeera that he “welcomes the Malaysian government’s continued commitment and ongoing efforts to explore closer cooperation on a variety of issues related to refugee protection”.

He added that the organization has been in close discussions on a cooperative framework for refugee management in the country for years through a government-initiated Joint Task Force, co-chaired by the Malaysian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Malaysian agency. UN refugees.

“UNHCR welcomes the Malaysian government’s continued interest in establishing a national framework to manage the refugee situation in the country which may eventually result in the government assuming greater responsibility for refugee management and protection,” it said. .

Rohingya refugee and activist Zafar Ahmad Abdul Ghani and his wife look out from behind a metal grill at their home in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Rohingya refugee and activist Zafar Ahmad Abdul Ghani and his wife were forced into hiding in 2020 after false information about him spread on social media. Still receiving death threats [File: Lim Huey Teng/Reuters]

But others are skeptical about the government’s ability to handle the job.

“The bottom line is that the government really doesn’t have the capacity to handle the refugee situation in the country,” said Robertson of Human Rights Watch.

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“With more than 180,000 refugees recognized by UNHCR, there is a huge human rights protection challenge to keep those people safe, and nothing the Malaysian government has done to date indicates that they are ready for that challenge.” .

Resettlement Questions

The plan to take control of asylum seekers and refugees in Malaysia has also raised questions about the resettlement process under which people can start a new life in third countries. UNHCR is central to the process and works with host countries to send refugees for resettlement. In Malaysia, most refugees are resettled in the United States.

“What I can say is that there will be no further resettlement of refugees in the absence of UNHCR,” said James Bawi Thang Bik. “I think the resettlement of refugees is beyond the capacity of a government without UNHCR.”

Robertson notes that most governments require a UNHCR interview to determine a refugee’s status.

“The fact that Malaysia is not a state party to the UN Refugee Convention means that UNHCR’s role is even more important and closing the office would be like Malaysia shooting itself in the foot,” he said.

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While UNHCR identifies refugees in need of resettlement, it is up to resettlement countries to decide how many refugees they will accept with a given quota each financial year. The United States, which receives the most people, has said it will accept 125,000 refugees in the resettlement process after hitting a record low under former President Donald Trump, when the quota was lowered to 15,000.

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Muhyuddin Yassin, former Prime Minister of Malaysia, raises his arm as he speaks at an evening rally in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Former Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin is campaigning as the leader of the Perikatan Nasional (PN). As prime minister, he had said that Malaysia could not cope with more Rohingya refugees. [Hasnoor Hussain/Reuters]

Despite the difficult situation in Malaysia, many refugees hope that whoever wins power this week will not only reconsider the plan to close the offices of the UN refugee agency, but also develop a more comprehensive refugee policy. and asylum seekers, even though the competing coalitions manifestos barely touch the issue.

Officials have regularly talked about giving refugees the right to work, while outgoing Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah has frequently visited community schools for Rohingya refugees while in office.

In 2016, while facing growing doubts about his role in the multi-billion dollar corruption scandal, Prime Minister Najib Razak, now jailed, held a mass rally to condemn Myanmar’s “genocide” against the Rohingya.

It was not possible for the world to “sit back and watch the genocide,” he told thousands of people at a Kuala Lumpur stadium, adding that the persecution of the Rohingya was an “insult” to Islam.

The following year, hundreds of thousands more Rohingya were forced to flee when the Myanmar military launched a brutal crackdown in the north-west of the country that is now the subject of a genocide trial at the International Court of Justice.

“We hope that the new government will allow UNHCR to resume its work to help refugees and asylum seekers and find a durable solution for them,” MEHROM’s Zafar said.

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