On November 19, millions of Malaysian voters will head 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 with suspicion amid what appears to be a recent toughening of rhetoric towards asylum seekers. asylum and refugees.
Considered “illegal immigrants” under Malaysian law, 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 Southeast Asian neighbours, Malaysia is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention or the 1967 Protocol, but in recent months the government of the outgoing Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob returned asylum seekers to Myanmar, launched a new tracking system for refugees and announced his commitment to closing the offices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which is currently managing the needs protection of asylum seekers and refugees.
“The presence of UNHCR offices is seen as the main pull factor for the increased influx of foreign migrants,” cabinet minister Abd Latiff Ahmad said in a parliamentary response to the opposition MP from Israel. time, 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 elections in May 2018 but collapsed amid political manoeuvring.
Human Rights Watch’s deputy director for Asia, Phil Robertson, told Al Jazeera that some see the moves as an election ploy.
“Many observers believe that the Home Secretary is pushing this issue for political reasons, to try to scapegoat the UNHCR, which appeals to part of the conservative electorate who are more xenophobic and anti- refugees,” he said.
“It’s a real shame because refugees should not be demonized under any circumstances because it puts people’s lives at risk.”
“Horrible and sad”
Many refugees are alarmed by the potential closure of UNHCR offices.
The agency not only assesses protection needs but also helps verify the identities of people caught up in the immigration detention system, although the government has not allowed access to the centers since 2019 during the brief period in power of Pakatan Harapan.
James Bawi Thang Bik, a representative of the Chin Refugee Alliance in Malaysia, described the decision as “terrible and sad news for the refugee community”.
Burmese make up 85% of refugees in Malaysia, and Chins from the west of the country are the second largest group after the predominantly Muslim Rohingyas.
“If there is no UNHCR, they [refugees] will have no hope, no security, and they can be exploited at any time. Suicide cases could increase among refugees,” he told Al Jazeera.
UNHCR is usually 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 are issued ID cards by the agency, with the lucky few eventually gaining resettlement elsewhere.
But the process of getting a card can take months and years of relocation.
“We are concerned that the registration process will take longer than the UNHCR registration process,” said Zafar Ahmad Abdul Ghani, chairman of the Myanmar Rohingya Human Rights Organization in Malaysia (MEHROM ). “Usually it takes 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 fake Facebook post claimed he had applied for Malaysian citizenship for Rohingya refugees. Two years later, he and his family are still receiving death threats and harassment.
“Establish a national framework”
The UN refugee agency began working in Malaysia during the Vietnam refugee crisis in the 1970s and quickly expanded following conflicts in countries from Myanmar to Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Syria.
His colonial-era bungalow in Kuala Lumpur has been extended several times, and the once-lush garden is covered with portacabins, parking and a vast covered building where asylum seekers await interviews and processing. demands.
Asked about the government’s plan to close the offices, Yante Ismail, the UNHCR’s Kuala Lumpur-based spokesman, told Al Jazeera that he “welcomes the Malaysian government’s continued commitment and ongoing efforts to explore closer cooperation on a variety of refugee protection issues”.
She added that the organization has had close discussions on a cooperative framework on refugee management in the country for years through a government-initiated joint working group, co-chaired by the Malaysian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Foreign Affairs and the United Nations Refugee Agency.
“UNHCR welcomes the Malaysian government’s continued interest in establishing a national framework to manage the refugee situation in the country, which could eventually lead to the government assuming greater responsibility in the management and protection of refugees.” , she said.
But others are skeptical of the government’s ability to handle the job.
“At the end of the day, the government really doesn’t have the capacity to handle the refugee situation in the country,” said Robertson of Human Rights Watch.
“With over 180,000 refugees recognized by UNHCR, there is a major human rights challenge to ensure the safety of these people, and nothing the Malaysian government has done to date indicates that he is ready to take up this challenge”.
The plan to screen 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 at the heart of the process and works with host countries to submit refugees for resettlement. In Malaysia, most refugees are resettled in the United States.
“What I can say is that there will be no more resettlement for refugees in the absence of UNHCR,” said James Bawi Thang Bik. “I think resettling refugees is beyond the capacity of a government without UNHCR.
Robertson notes that most governments require an interview with UNHCR 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 that closing the office would be like Malaysia shooting itself in the foot,” did he declare.
While UNHCR identifies refugees in need of resettlement, it is up to resettlement countries to decide how many refugees they will accept with a quota decided each financial year. The United States, which takes in the most people, said it would accept 125,000 refugees being resettled after hitting a record high under former President Donald Trump’s administration when the quota was cut to 15 000.
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 policy for refugees and asylum seekers, even though competing coalitions manifestos barely address the issue.
Officials have periodically spoken of giving refugees the right to work, while outgoing foreign minister Saifuddin Abdullah has often visited community schools for Rohingya refugees during his tenure.
In 2016, amid growing questions about his role in the multibillion-dollar corruption scandal, now-imprisoned Prime Minister Najib Razak staged a mass rally condemning Myanmar’s ‘genocide’ against the Rohingya. .
It was not possible for the world to “sit back and watch the genocide unfold”, he told thousands at a stadium in Kuala Lumpur, adding that the persecution of the Rohingya was a ” insult” to Islam.
The following year, hundreds of thousands more Rohingya were forced to flee as Myanmar’s military launched a brutal crackdown in the northwest of the country which is now on trial for genocide before 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,” said MEHROM’s Zafar.