Last Updated: Friday, 19 January 2018, 17:46 GMT

U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants World Refugee Survey 2005 - Malaysia

Publisher United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Publication Date 20 June 2005
Cite as United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants World Refugee Survey 2005 - Malaysia , 20 June 2005, available at: [accessed 21 January 2018]
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.

Refoulement/Asylum  Malaysia refouled at least several hundred members of ethnic and religious minorities. The Government sent Acehnese back to Indonesia and Muslim Rohingya and Christian Chin to Thailand, which then deported some back to their original country, Myanmar. Other refugees were victims of constructive refoulement, opting for deportation due to horrendous conditions in immigration detention camps. Authorities did allow the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to interview detained refugees to process them for resettlement, but resettlement countries did not provide nearly enough places for the number of refugees in danger of refoulement. UNHCR estimated that it would be able to place only 350 Acehnese in 2005.

Malaysia had no refugee law and its 1959 Immigration Act (amended 2002, Immigration Act) made no distinction between refugees and illegal immigrants. The Government had permitted some 65,000 Filipino Muslim refugees from the Moro insurgency of the 1970s to remain in Sabah Province, but did not grant them citizenship rendering their children stateless. In 2003, UNHCR began issuing Acehnese and Rohingya temporary protection letters based on group membership. Because police roadblocks prevented many from applying, UNHCR sometimes worked with mobile teams. Asylum seekers of other nationalities, however, were not eligible, so the agency conducted refugee status determinations for them. The process of applying for and receiving refugee status, however, could take years. In September, police arrested 15 persons, mostly Acehnese without documentation, seeking asylum outside UNHCR's office in Kuala Lumpur.

In July, Home Minister Datuk Azmi Khalid threatened to expel more than one million illegal immigrants in the coming year, but in October, said that there would be an amnesty until December 31. In March 2005, in sympathy for victims of the recent tsunami, Minister Khalid said they would spare Acehnese from arrest and allow them to stay temporarily. The next day, however, Deputy Prime Minister Najib retracted Khalid's statement and threatened to expell even those with UNHCR documentation.

Detention  At year's end, there were 364 refugees and asylum seekers in detention, 15 of whom were minors. In mid-July, in Selayang, north of Kuala Lumpur, plainclothes police arrested seven Acehnese refugees, including three children. The police told the refugees that their UNHCR documentation was not effective, but later released three who had work permits. In late July, police and members of the government-run People's Volunteer Corps arrested up to 61 Acehnese asylum seekers with UNHCR temporary protection letters in a midnight raid in Selayang.

From 2003 to 2004, authorities beat more than 9,000 persons convicted of violating the Immigration Act with up to six cane strokes, as the Act's 2002 amendment permitted for men under 50. In 2003, the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) visited Semenyih Immgiration Detention Depot, which included refugees and asylum seekers. It found detainees with fresh scars and concluded that this amounted to cruel and inhuman treatment.

Immigration detention camps were overcrowded, and detainees suffered from insufficient food and healthcare, poor sanitation, and abuse from guards, contributing to the deaths of several detainees. In 2003, Suhakam also reported an outbreak of meningitis in one camp and detainees with "skin infections and rashes all over their bodies and pus oozing from their skin" in another.

In September 2004, more than one hundred detainees went on a hunger strike in Semenyih .

The Government generally did not permit observers to visit prisons or monitor conditions. In June, in response to allegations of abuse, the Government made an exception and allowed the media to visit Kamunting prison. The Government allowed UNHCR access to several camps but only upon specific requests to see particular inmates. Authorities often did not permit detainees to make phone calls to alert UNHCR that they were being detained.

The 2002 amendments to the Immigration Act also provided for up to five years imprisonment. Some spent more than two years in detention awaiting resettlement. Detainees had no hearings and, short of deportation or resettlement, authorities only released them if their employers proved their legal status.

Right to Earn a Livelihood  With the exception of Filipino Muslims in Sabah, Malaysia did not permit refugees and asylum seekers to work. The Immigration Act penalized employers of illegal immigrants and authorities often arrested illegal workers. Many worked in the informal sector without legal protection and authorities harassed them and extorted money under the threat of arrest. Malaysia also did not allow refugees to hold title to or transfer business premises, farmland, homes, or other capital assets.

In October, the government announced that it would grant some 10,000 Rohingya the right to reside and to work in Malaysia, but did not do so. Foreign workers with legal permits could theoretically join unions, but the Immigration Department placed conditions on their permits that effectively barred them from doing so. Immigrant workers in construction and other sectors, especially those without legal status, generally could not use the national system of labor adjudication. Foreign workers who were dismissed for any reason lost their permits, their legal right to remain in Malaysia, and even their right to pursue legal action against abusive employers, despite court requests that the Immigration Department grant them visas to do so.

Freedom of Movement and Residence  In March, when five Acehnese men were arrested at a police roadblock in Johor State (three had UNHCR protection letters), their driver, who had permanent residence status, was arrested and jailed on charges of allowing illegal immigrants to enter his car, though they later released him on bail. In jungle sites, local authorities burned down refugee shelters. The Immigration Act prohibited the act of renting housing to undocumented migrants, calling it "harboring."

Although they had no legal right to do so, refugees resided where they could find jobs under constant threat of arrest.

The Filipino Muslim refugees were confined by law to the designated area of Sabah. In April, the prime minister threatened to set up camps in the north to confine potential refugees fleeing violence in southern Thailand. Refugees did not have access to international travel documents.

Public Relief and Education  Despite having ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, Malaysia did not provide primary education or healthcare to the children of refugees or asylum seekers, even if they were born in Malaysia. Despite some community-based schools, thousands remained unschooled. Filipino Muslim refugees in Sabah generally received public assistance on par with nationals.

In September, the Ministry of Health allowed "persons designated as refugees to the UNHCR" healthcare on par with nationals, but suspended the measure several weeks later. Authorities provided no other public relief, rationing, or assistance, but did permit independent humanitarian agencies to assist refugees. Police conducted surveillance of local NGOs who helped asylum seekers and refugees, but allowed them to continue their work.

Copyright 2005, U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants

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