Last Updated: Tuesday, 16 January 2018, 09:27 GMT

U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants World Refugee Survey 2007 - Malaysia

Publisher United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Publication Date 11 July 2007
Cite as United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants World Refugee Survey 2007 - Malaysia, 11 July 2007, available at: [accessed 16 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/Physical Protection

Malaysia deported nearly 1,200 Myanmarese refugees to Thailand, of whom Thai immigration officials turned more than 30 over to Myanmar. Refugees who were able to leave Myanmar and return to Malaysia reported that Myanmarese officials detained them for up to five months, tortured them, and fined them from about $1,000 to $7,900 (6,000 to 50,000 Myanmar Kyats). The Government said these deportations were voluntary, but the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) could not always verify this. The harsh conditions in Malaysia's detention facilities (below) made it likely that not all were voluntary.

In December, the Government deported a former Cambodian government official who was seeking asylum back to Cambodia, even though he had an offer of resettlement from Finland.

Malaysian officials turned many of the refugees it deported to Thailand directly over to human traffickers, such as in the April case of 25 recognized Chin refugees from Myanmar, including two pregnant women. Reportedly, immigration officials received bribes for each deportee from the traffickers. Agents sometimes held these and others they captured for ransoms of about $140 to $190 or smuggled them back into Malaysia for higher fees of about $380 to $490. Traffickers often sold those not able to pay to Thai fishing boats in the case of men, or brothels in the case of women.

The Government had no mechanism for granting asylum or registering refugees. UNHCR handled all refugee status determinations in Malaysia and issued plastic, tamperproof cards to those it recognized as refugees. UNHCR gave Myanmarese Rohingyas temporary protection as a group, interviewing asylum seekers to establish their ethnicity. In November, it stopped offering group status to Acehnese asylum seekers from Indonesia. UNHCR performed individual status determinations for non-Rohingya asylum seekers, granting refugee status under its mandate. Refugees with group status were not eligible for resettlement, but if the authorities arrested and detained them, UNHCR gave them full interviews, making those that passed eligible.

As UNHCR had no presence at the border, most asylum seekers had to travel to Kuala Lumpur for determinations. UNHCR conducted mobile registration exercises in areas with high concentrations of refugees, but these were insufficient to meet the need. UNHCR registered 9,000 asylum seekers in 2006, and performed 10,700 refugee status determinations. As many as 20,000 refugees and asylum seekers were not able to register with UNHCR.

After a February raid by the Ministry of Home Affairs' auxiliary People's Volunteer Corps (RELA), the bodies of five Myanmarese migrant workers were found in a lake. In February, a Mon asylum seeker from Myanmar died during a RELA raid. RELA members slapped and repeatedly kicked a refugee during a July raid.

At least one asylum seeker died in detention during the year, and several died in workplace accidents.

Crime was common in areas where refugees lived, as criminals took advantage of their illegal status, particularly victimizing women. Police found a Rohingya refugee murdered in her apartment in May. In December, assailants stabbed two Chin youths to death during a New Year's Eve celebration.

During 2006, Malaysian officials caned six refugees and asylum seekers for immigration violations.

In 2005, Malaysia issued between 32,000 and 35,000 IMM13 work permits to Acehnese refugees and migrants, which legalized their stay in the country. As the Government allowed the Acehnese community to handle the process instead of UNHCR, not all of the refugees recognized by UNHCR received the permits. The Government continued to permit some 68,600 Filipino Muslim refugees from the Moro insurgency of the 1970s to remain in Sabah Province.

Following the 2005 signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between the Free Aceh Movement and the Indonesian Government, Acehnese refugees began returning voluntarily. There was no formal process for doing so, and many had to purchase false passports to return.

Detention/Access to Courts

Malaysia continued to arrest undocumented foreigners, including nearly 3,000 refugees, asylum seekers, or other persons of concern to UNHCR, for illegal entry, illegal stay, and working without permission throughout the year. Through September, RELA reported arresting 17,700 illegal immigrants, including more than 2,000 from Myanmar. At year's end, Malaysia held more than 730 refugees and asylum seekers in 26 detention centers across the country, including 90 women and 90 children. The majority of these refugees (roughly 500) were from Myanmar. For the past two years, Malaysia has held an average of 700 refugees and asylum seekers in detention each month. Unless UNHCR secured their release, Malaysia held detainees until they agreed to deportation, in most cases about six months, although Malaysia has held some detainees for more than a year.

In July, adult detainees beat a 17-year-old Chin asylum seeker to death in the Kajang Prison, also severely injuring another detainee.

In April, Malaysian police arrested more than 80 Myanmarese for illegal assembly and immigration charges after they protested outside the office of a company that invested in Myanmar. In June, authorities arrested nearly 70 Myanmarese protesting the detention of Aung San Suu Kyi for illegal assembly. More than 30 eventually pled guilty and authorities transferred them from prison to an immigration detention center and released the rest after the prosecution withdrew its case. One remained in detention at year's end. In September, immigration officials arrested a Chin refugee and her infant son when she attempted to register his birth. Authorities detained them for two weeks before the director of immigration enforcement intervened to secure their release. In late February and early March 2007, Malaysia detained three more refugee infants and five adults under similar circumstances. In late March, authorities released a group of 25 refugees and asylum seekers, including six infants less than two months old and their mothers. Authorities continued to detain more than 130 Thai Muslims who entered in 2005.

On more than one occasion, detainees escaped from the detention centers, including more than 60 Indonesians and Filipinos in April and a group of almost 20 Rohingya refugees in May.

Detention centers for illegal immigrants remained overcrowded, and detainees continued to receive insufficient food and health services, poor sanitation, and abuse from guards, despite the Government transferring their management from the Immigration Department to the Prisons Department in 2005. In October, Malaysia's Home Affairs Minister said that the overcrowding would not slow arrests of illegal immigrants, and that Malaysia would build new detention centers. Refugees also contracted tuberculosis while in detention, which barred their resettlement.

UNHCR and the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia, a governmental body, were able to visit detention centers, but the Government did not generally permit the International Committee of the Red Cross, nongovernmental organizations, or the media to visit prisons or monitor conditions. Refugees could challenge their detention if they had legal representation, but most had no opportunity to ask for legal representation and/or could not afford legal fees. UNHCR provided refugees with volunteer lawyers, but as Malaysia had not ratified most relevant human rights accords their arguments were rarely successful. Additionally, authorities did not permit detainees to make phone calls upon arrest, so they generally had to bribe a police officer to be able to inform anyone of their arrest. In 2003, a court sentenced Irene Fernandez of the human rights group Tenaganita to a year in prison for malicious publication of allegedly false allegations of abuse and torture of migrant workers in detention, and her case remained on appeal at year's end.

In April, immigration officials ignored a magistrate's order to release 25 Myanmarese refugees, detained them at Machap Umboo Centre, and forcibly deported them.

Since 2004, Malaysia had improved its recognition of the refugee cards issued by UNHCR. Refugees with UNHCR cards were usually safe from arrest by regular police, although immigration officials still detained them. Police still arrested asylum seekers occasionally, as they did not always recognize the letters UNHCR issued asylum seekers. When authorities did arrest refugees, they were subject to prosecution under the 1959 Immigration Act (amended 2002), which made no distinction between refugees and illegal immigrants. Amendments to the Immigration Act in 2002 provided for up to five years imprisonment, along with whipping up to six strokes, and fines of about $2,900 for violations.

In December, police threatened a Myanmarese woman with arrest when she attempted to report an assault by her boyfriend. The Kachin Development Organization, a group of Kachin refugees from Myanmar, reported 12 cases of sexual harassment during 2006, including two by police officers who also extorted money from the refugees.

The Federal Constitution extended its protections for individual liberty to all persons but created an exception whereby the 24 hours allowed authorities to bring a detainee before a magistrate became two weeks in the case of an alien detained under the immigration laws.

Freedom of Movement and Residence

Refugees and asylum seekers recognized by UNHCR enjoyed some freedom of movement, although government harassment, extortion, and detention still occurred. Police sometimes held refugees with UNHCR cards until they paid bribes of about $58 to $145. In October, police arrested two Kachin women from Myanmar on their way to church and sexually molested them, holding them until they paid a ransom of about $290.

Authorities still arrested those without cards while they were trying to move about the country and during immigration raids conducted house-to-house or at businesses.

The Immigration Act prohibited renting housing to undocumented migrants. Although they had no legal right to do so, refugees resided where they could find jobs and were under constant threat of arrest. Many Chin refugees lived in makeshift camps in the jungle, near construction sites or other places of employment. Malaysia generally confined Filipino Muslim refugees to the designated area of Sabah.

Refugees did not have access to international travel documents, except for those who received documents from countries of resettlement.

Right to Earn a Livelihood

Malaysia allowed Filipino Muslims in Sabah and Acehnese refugees to work, but not other refugees.

In 2005, the Government issued between 32,000 and 35,000 IMM13 work permits to Acehnese migrants and refugees from Indonesia. The permits cost between about $44 and $50, were valid for two years, and were renewable. They did not permit the refugees to engage in trade but did allow them to work, attend school, and live in the country legally. The permits did not tie their bearers to single employers. In August, Malaysia began to register some 12,000 Rohingyas from Myanmar for the same permits, but suspended the process almost immediately, alleging corruption on the part of the community leaders it allowed to coordinate the registration. In the past, Malaysia also allowed Cambodian Khmer Muslim and Bosnian refugees the right to work.

The Immigration Act penalized employers of illegal immigrants with fines of about $2,900 to $14,500 or, if they employed more than five, imprisonment from six months to five years and up to six cane strokes. Authorities often raided workplaces and arrested illegal workers. A December raid, for instance, netted 51 refugees and asylum seekers, including 32 with UNHCR cards.

Many refugees worked in the informal sector without legal protection and in unsafe conditions. At least three Myanmarese workers died during the year, one falling from a lift on a construction site in May, and two killed by a falling stack of glass slabs in June. In January 2007, a Chin refugee fell to his death on a construction site. Refugees had no access to workers compensation, and medical treatment for on the job injuries was at the discretion of the employer.

Malaysia also did not allow refugees to hold title to or transfer business premises, farmland, homes, or other capital assets.

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. The permits of most foreign workers tied them to single employers, although this was not the case with the IMM13 permits given to Acehnese or Filipino refugees.

Immigrant workers in construction and other sectors, especially those without legal status, generally could not use the national system of labor adjudication. If employers dismissed foreign workers for any reason, they lost their permits, their legal right to remain in Malaysia, and their right to pursue legal action against abusive employers – despite court requests that the Immigration Department grant them visas to do so.

The Federal Constitution offered most of its protections from arbitrary deprivation of property to all persons but reserved protection against discrimination based on religion, race, descent, or place of birth in work, trade, professional, or property matters and the right to form associations to citizens.

Public Relief and Education

Refugees and asylum seekers were ineligible for public relief.

Despite having ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, Malaysia did not provide primary education or free health services to most refugee children or asylum seekers – not even those born in Malaysia. Although the IMM13 cards technically granted parents the right to send their children to public schools, in practice the Government only allowed them to attend private schools. Many refugee communities established their own schools, and UNHCR partners ran some basic education programs for refugee children and adults.

Refugees with UNHCR documents received medical services at half price. Also, refugees and asylum seekers with HIV/AIDS received free treatment from the public health service. Other than this, authorities provided no medical services, public relief, rationing, or assistance, but did permit independent humanitarian agencies to help refugees. Police conducted surveillance of local NGOs who helped asylum seekers and refugees, but allowed them to continue their work.

Authorities generally did not restrict humanitarian agencies from aiding refugees and asylum seekers. Malaysia did not include refugees or asylum seekers in the Ninth Malaysia Plan, the country's primary economic planning document, but it did include them in its National Strategic Plan for HIV/AIDS 2007-2010.

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