Last Updated: Wednesday, 13 December 2017, 11:55 GMT

U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2002 - Malaysia

Publisher United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Publication Date 10 June 2002
Cite as United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2002 - Malaysia , 10 June 2002, available at: [accessed 13 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.

Malaysia hosted more than 57,500 refugees and asylum seekers at the end of 2001, the overwhelming majority (57,000) Filipino Muslims.

Although Malaysia is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention and has no system for adjudicating asylum claims, until 1998 the government generally respected grants of refugee status by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). However, in 1998, Malaysia began forcibly returning some Indonesian Acehnese whom UNHCR had determined to be refugees, as well as others who had not yet approached UNHCR, a practice that continued in 2001.

At year's end, 266 persons considered refugees under UNHCR's mandate were in Malaysia, including 83 Indonesian Acehnese, 77 Afghans, 29 Burmese Rohingya, 22 Burmese Chin, 21 Somalis, and 34 persons from other countries. Another 265 asylum seekers had claims pending with UNHCR at year's end.

Nearly 5,000 Rohingya and about 3,000 Acehnese lived in Malaysia in refugee-like circumstances.

Filipino Muslims

More than 57,000 Filipino Muslims remained as refugees in Malaysia, primarily in the eastern province of Sabah. Most Filipino Muslims arrived in Sabah in the 1970s, and received assistance from UNHCR between 1977 and 1987. The refugees fled fighting between the armed forces of the Philippines and Muslim insurgents, including those who want a separate Muslim state.

Although Malaysia has no formal asylum system, the government for years regarded the 57,000 Filipinos as refugees and permitted them to reside legally in Sabah. The Filipinos held special one-year passes (normally provided to visitors) on which "refugee" was stamped. Annual renewal of the passport was generally automatic. The refugees could legally work, attend school, and receive basic social and medical services, but were not considered permanent residents.

In July, Malaysia announced that it had "revoked" the refugee status of the 57,000 Filipinos in Sabah. Officials said they would allow the Filipinos to remain in the country if they had a place to stay and obtained work passes, which would be renewable every year. Those without work passes would be deported, officials said. According to UNHCR, by year's end no practical impact of the official change in status was evident, other than a lowered attention to the refugee issue by Sabah officials. The refugees' living conditions remained virtually the same.

As the separatist war in the southern Philippines heated up, Malaysia once again said it had tightened security along its sea border and would "not allow Sabah to become a haven for refugees."

Malaysia took these steps after Nur Misuari, the former leader of a rebel group in the southern Philippines who then became governor of the semi-autonomous region of Mindanao, instigated a bloody revolt in November. Soon after, Misuari fled to Malaysia and sought sanctuary there. Malaysia, however, detained Misuari and requested the Philippine government's permission to return him.

Soon after his detention, Misuari sought the protection of UNHCR, which attempted to assess his refugee claim. However, Malaysia denied UNHCR officials access to Misuari.

By year's end, Malaysia and the Philippines had set a date of January 15, 2002 for Misuari's deportation.

Rohingya Refugees from Burma

At year's end, 41 ethnic Rohingya refugees and asylum seekers from Burma were in Malaysia. The Rohingya, who are Muslim, are one of many minority ethnic groups who have fled persecution by Burma's military regime.

The Rohingya have no legal status in Malaysia and hold no Malaysian identity documents. Malaysia has been unable to return the Rohingya to Burma because the Burmese regime denies the refugees are its citizens. In 2001, Malaysia continued to deport some Rohingya to the border of Thailand – including at least one case of forced return of a UNHCR-recognized Rohingya refugee – after which most were believed to have returned on their own to Malaysia.

In 1998, nearly 1,600 Rohingya approached UNHCR for the first time to request individual determinations of their refugee claims. By the end of 2000, UNHCR had denied most of the claims, approving only 48. In 2001, another 42 Rohingya approached UNHCR. Of those cases and others pending from the previous year, UNHCR granted refugee status to one person and rejected 28. At year's end, 29 UNHCR-recognized Rohingya remained in Malaysia. Several had been resettled in other countries, while others did not renew their status with UNHCR. Another 12 Rohingya cases were pending.

Some 3,400 other Rohingya were believed to be in Malaysia. The number could have been much larger, however, because many Rohingya did not register with UNHCR during an initial registration in 1992-93, which yielded a figure of 5,100. Many observers, including some government officials, believed the number of Rohingya was more than 10,000 by the end of 2000. UNHCR still considers 5,100 Rohingya to be "of concern," since they have no legal status and no documents in Malaysia.

Based on UNHCR's status determinations, the U.S. Committee for Refugees (USCR) counts only the 29 recognized refugees and 12 pending cases as refugees. USCR regards the 1,564 Rohingya denied by UNHCR, and the remaining 3,400 who have not come forward, to be living in refugee-like circumstances.

Acehnese Asylum Seekers

Only 167 Indonesians from the province of Aceh were UNHCR-recognized refugees or asylum seekers in Malaysia at the end of 2001. The number of Acehnese who approached UNHCR in Malaysia jumped from 53 persons in 2000 to 259 in 2001.

During the year, UNHCR decided the claims of 149 Acehnese, approving 29 and denying 120. At year's end, 84 Acehnese cases were pending.

Acehnese groups estimated that another 3,000 Acehnese who fear persecution were in Malaysia at year's end. While this number was believed to be about 500 in 2000, Acehnese groups said that actions of both the Malaysian and Indonesian governments in 2001 caused many of the Acehnese already in Malaysia to fear persecution if returned home. Separatist violence and human rights abuses in Aceh increased, and Indonesia regarded Achenese returning from Malaysia with suspicion, subjecting many to arrest and detention. Malaysia regarded most Acehnese as potential insurgents and deported some Acehnese along with other "illegal workers" from Indonesia.

Only a small percentage of the Acehnese in Malaysia have approached UNHCR with requests for refugee status, and UNHCR has denied most Acehnese claims. USCR considers those denied by UNHCR and those who have not come forward – at least 3,000 – to be in refugee-like circumstances.

In 2001, Malaysia forcibly returned at least one UNHCR-recognized Acehnese refugee.

Other Developments

In February, Malaysia said it would secure its land and sea borders to prevent the entry of fleeing Madurese Indonesians from Central Kalimantan on the island of Borneo, which Indonesia shares with Malaysia. The Madurese were the target of attacks by ethnic Dayaks. Malaysia said it would detain and return any Madurese who managed to enter.

USCR wrote to the Malaysian government in March, urging it to open the country's borders to fleeing Madurese. In response, the government told USCR that, because Malaysia is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, "The application of general immigration rules classifies refugees as illegal immigrants to be detained and/or entitled to refoulement." The government added, "While we wish there were more that could be done to help the Madurese, no country in the world can afford to overlook the problems of its own people while prioritizing that of others."

In July, ethnic Chin from Burma residing in Malaysia formed the Chin Refugee Committee. Representatives of the organization said that some 2,000 Chin had fled to Malaysia during the past several years, but that most were without status and faced the threat of return to Burma. UNHCR said many Chin had lived in an undocumented capacity in Malaysia for years and were now being affected by Malaysia's crackdown on "illegal immigrants."

UNHCR received 418 applications from Chin asylum seekers during 2001. Of those, it approved 22 and denied 248. Another 88 Chin claims were pending at year's end.

During 2001, the Australian government sharply criticized Malaysia for contributing to the problem of international human smuggling – and in particular to the number of asylum seekers attempting to reach Australia by boat – because of Malaysia's visa-free entry policy for nationals of most Islamic countries. Although Malaysia denied that it was responsible for Australia's problems, the Malaysian government nevertheless said that it had taken steps to curb human smuggling.

In August, the Malaysian government tightened restrictions on UNHCR's already-uneven access to refugees and asylum seekers in detention. Under the new policy, UNHCR must seek prior permission from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to visit persons in detention, a rule that significantly delayed UNHCR's ability to conduct refugee status determinations and provide other assistance. In addition, Malaysia's accelerated efforts to deport "illegal immigrants" often meant shorter detention periods before deportation, further hampering UNHCR's ability to intervene on behalf of refugees and asylum seekers.

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