Last Updated: Monday, 18 December 2017, 07:50 GMT

U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2000 - Malaysia

Publisher United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Publication Date 1 June 2000
Cite as United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2000 - Malaysia , 1 June 2000, available at: [accessed 18 December 2017]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.


At the end of 1999, Malaysia hosted more than 45,400 refugees and asylum seekers, the vast majority (45,000) Filipino Muslims. Smaller numbers were from Burma (124, all ethnic Rohingya) and various other countries (more than 300, mostly Indonesian Acehnese). More than 3,500 Burmese Rohingya and an unknown number of Acehnese lived in Malaysia in refugee-like circumstances.

Malaysia is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention and has no system for adjudicating asylum claims. However, until 1998 it generally respected grants of mandate refugee status by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). In 1998, and to a lesser extent in 1999, Malaysia forcibly returned Acehnese whom UNHCR had determined to be refugees. It also refused entry to other Indonesian asylum seekers.

In 1999, in reference to Filipino Muslims remaining in Malaysia, the Malaysian foreign minister said, "We allow people for temporary stay and when that stay is over they have to go back. We have never granted anybody refugee status."

More than 1,800 asylum seekers (of whom 1,600 were Burmese Rohingya) approached UNHCR during the year. Of those, UNHCR denied refugee status to more than 1,750 people and recognized 82 as refugees. More than 80 status determinations were pending at the end of 1999. Of the pending cases from 1998, UNHCR recognized 14 and denied refugee status to 556 persons.

In October, Malaysia arrested and detained a Burmese activist, Muhammad Sayed, for participating in a peaceful demonstration against the Burmese military. UNHCR had recognized Sayed as a refugee and had submitted his case to Australia for resettlement before he was arrested and detained. UNHCR informed the Malaysian authorities of his refugee status and requested his release, but Malaysia had not released him year's end. His resettlement to Australia was still pending.

Filipino Muslim Refugees

Some 45,000 Filipino Muslims from the island of Mindanao remained as refugees in Malaysia, mostly in the eastern province of Sabah. Most arrived in Sabah in the 1970s; others arrived in the early 1980s. UNHCR began operations in Sabah in 1977 in response to a request from the Malaysian government. UNHCR, which focused its assistance on local integration, phased out its program during 1987.

The refugees fled fighting between the armed forces of the Philippines and Muslim insurgents, including those who wanted a separate Muslim state (see Philippines).

Although Malaysia had no formal asylum system, the government regarded these 45,000 as refugees and permitted them to reside legally – although temporarily – in Sabah.

A larger number of Filipino Muslims – perhaps hundreds of thousands – were believed to be living and working there as undocumented migrant workers who did not come to Malaysia for refugee-related reasons.

The chief minister's department of Sabah was responsible for the refugees, and Malaysia's Federal Task Force on Immigrants monitored their situation. Because few refugees were believed to have returned to the Philippines, the Malaysian government and UNHCR agreed to continue using a 1986 registration figure of 45,170. Malaysia asked the refugees to re-register during a 1997 legalization exercise aimed at undocumented immigrants. Although other Filipinos were granted Malaysian passports, the refugees' status did not change.

The refugees still did not have permanent residence at the end of 1999. They held one-year special passes (normally provided to visitors) on which "refugee" was stamped. Malaysia required the refugees to renew their passes upon expiration. The refugees could legally work, attend school, and receive basic social and medical services, but they were not considered permanent residents.

Following a 1996 peace agreement between the Philippine government and the Muslim Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) – one of the two main Muslim insurgent groups – Malaysia and the Philippines discussed the future of the Filipino Muslims in Sabah. However, because of setbacks in the peace process, the two governments took no steps toward repatriation in 1999.

Rohingya Refugees from Burma

Some 124 ethnic Rohingya refugees from Burma remained in Malaysia at year's end. The Rohingya, who are Muslim, are one of the minority ethnic groups who have fled persecution by Burma's military regime (see Burma).

The Rohingya had no legal status in Malaysia and held no documents. In 1997, Malaysia's prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, asked the government of Burma to help Malaysia deport 8,000 Burmese "illegal immigrants," presumably including UNHCR recognized refugees. Malaysia had difficulty deporting the Rohingya because Burma denied they were its citizens. In 1999, Malaysia reportedly deported some to the Thai Burma border (after which they were said to have returned to Malaysia).

Although most of the Rohingya had been in Malaysia for several years, many approached UNHCR directly in 1998, for the first time, requesting individual determinations of their refugee claims. In 1999, 1,597 Rohingya applied to UNHCR for refugee recognition. UNHCR granted mandate refugee status to 43 persons and denied 1,473. The remaining 81 applications were pending at year's end.

UNHCR said the rejected applicants had failed to prove a well-founded fear of persecution but rather had "referred in very general terms to a situation as it may have prevailed in Burma at the end of the 1980s or early 1990s."

At least 3,500 other Rohingya were believed to be in Malaysia. The number could have been much larger, however, because many Rohingya never registered with UNHCR during an initial registration in 1992-93. UNHCR formerly considered the 5,100 who registered at that time to be prima facie refugees but, once large numbers of Rohingya began repatriating from Bangladesh, particularly in 1994, UNHCR decided the prima facie status was no longer appropriate.

Based on UNHCR's 1999 status determinations, USCR no longer considers all registered Rohingyas as refugees, and counts only the 43 approved cases and 81 pending cases as refugees. USCR regards the 1,473 persons denied by UNHCR and the remaining 3,500 who have not come forward as living in refugee-like circumstances. While the majority in both groups may not meet the narrow refugee definition, Burma has denied them the protection afforded by citizenship.

Acehnese Asylum Seekers

Less than 200 Indonesians from the province of Aceh were refugees in Malaysia at the end of 1999. Some were recognized under UNHCR's mandate while others, who held Malaysian temporary residence cards, were considered prima facie refugees by UNHCR. An armed separatist movement has been active in Aceh for nearly 25 years.

Acehnese groups estimated that 3,500 Acehnese who had fled persecution were in Malaysia as of mid-1998. However, only a small percentage had come forward with requests for asylum. Although UNHCR had recognized some as refugees, it denied most Acehnese claims. The U.S. Committee for Refugees (USCR) considered the remainder to be in refugee-like circumstances.

In 1999, during its continued crackdown on undocumented immigrants, Malaysia forcibly returned two UNHCR-recognized Acehnese refugees who had been approved for resettlement in a third country. The status of other Acehnese remained insecure. Malaysia detained an unknown number of Acehnese, among them at least several mandate refugees and others with legal temporary residence in Malaysia. Malaysia provided UNHCR limited access to detained asylum seekers. The agency, in turn, secured the release of several Acehnese in 1999.

In August, Malaysia's prime minister said his country did not support the secessionist efforts of the Acehnese refugees in Malaysia and that he would not allow them to do anything that could jeopardize Indonesia. Malaysia used its controversial Internal Security Act to arrest and detain Acehnese, including those accused of helping bring other asylum seekers to Malaysia. Malaysian officials also seized political materials related to the asylum requests of several Acehnese.

Other Developments

In March, Malaysia refused entry to fleeing Madurese Indonesians from West Kalimantan on the island of Borneo, which Indonesia shares with Malaysia. The Indonesians were transmigrants to Kalimantan from the Indonesian island of Madura. The Madurese were the target of attacks by ethnic Malays and indigenous Dayaks, who blamed the transmigrants for the loss of jobs and tribal land (see Indonesia).

A boat carrying more than 400 Madurese landed at the coastal town of Semantan, in Malaysia's Sarawak Province. Malaysian authorities confined the passengers on board overnight. After giving them food, water, and fuel the next day, Malaysian marine police escorted the boat back into international waters, where it was met by the Indonesian navy and escorted to Pontianak. Malaysia permitted one couple to stay, following the birth of a child while in Semantan.

According to UNHCR, the incident was not refoulement (forced return) because the Madurese aboard the boat did not require international protection. UNHCR concluded that Indonesia was both willing and able to provide protection to the Madurese, that Malaysia and Indonesia cooperated to ensure that the boat could reach Pontianak, and that the Indonesian government was "successfully protecting" the Madurese in Pontianak.

However, following the incident, a top Malaysian police official said, "We have made a stand not to allow boats carrying refugees to land in our country." Another noted, "We will not allow any landing of refugees. We will shoo them back into Indonesian waters." Malaysia said it would increase land, sea, and air surveillance to prevent the Madurese from entering their country. Indonesia said it would assist with the surveillance. These remarks indicated that Malaysia's policy of not permitting individuals to seek asylum was a partial, if not the primary, factor behind its actions.

In addition, it was not clear that Indonesia could guarantee the Madurese safety in Pontianak. In July, fearing renewed violence if the Madurese stayed in Pontianak, Indonesia said it would help them return to their native Madura. Madurese officials, however, said the refugees should not return. (By the end of the year, the Indonesian government had relocated an unknown number of Madurese to nearby islands. A few thousand were believed to have returned to Madura, while others remained displaced on Borneo.)

Because the Madurese may have wished to seek asylum in Malaysia – had they been given the opportunity – and because Indonesia's ability to protect the Madurese was uncertain, USCR regards Malaysia's return of the 411 Madurese as refoulement.

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