At the end of 2000, Malaysia hosted more than 57,000 refugees and asylum seekers, the vast majority (57,000) Filipino Muslims. Smaller numbers were from Burma (39, all ethnic Rohingya) and various other countries (312 persons, including 150 Indonesian Acehnese). An estimated 4,900 Burmese Rohingya and about 500 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 refugee status by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). In 1998, and to a lesser extent in 1999 and 2000, Malaysia forcibly returned Acehnese whom UNHCR had determined to be refugees. It also refused entry to other Indonesian asylum seekers.

At year's end, 287 persons considered refugees under UNHCR's mandate were in Malaysia. They included 149 Acehnese, 55 Afghans, 34 Burmese Rohingya, 26 Somalis, and 23 persons from other countries. Another 25 asylum seekers had claims pending with UNHCR at year's end.

Filipino Muslims

An estimated 57,000 Filipino Muslims remained as refugees in Malaysia, mostly in the eastern province of Sabah. The figure, some 12,000 more than in the previous World Refugee Survey, does not represent new refugee arrivals during 2000, but rather updated estimates from the Malaysian government.

Most Filipino Muslims arrived in Sabah in the 1970s; others arrived in the early 1980s. UNHCR assisted the refugees from 1977 to 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 regarded these 57,000 Filipinos as refugees and permitted them to reside legally in Sabah.

A larger number of other Filipino Muslims – perhaps hundreds of thousands – were believed to be living and working in Malaysia as undocumented migrant workers.

For years, the Malaysian government and UNHCR agreed to continue using a 1986 registration figure of 45,170. However, in November 2000, the Malaysian Ministry of Foreign Affairs reported to Parliament that there were 57,000 Filipinos in Sabah who were registered as refugees, a figure that may be explained in part by births since 1986.

The refugees still did not have permanent residence at the end of 2000. They held one-year special 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 they were not considered permanent residents.

In April and September 2000, in two highly publicized incidents, guerrillas from a smaller Moro separatist group known as Abu Sayyaf kidnapped 24 persons, including foreign tourists, from Malaysian islands. They took the hostages to the southern Philippines.

Although the hostages had all been released by the end of the year, the kidnappings strained relations between Malaysia and the Philippines and caused Malaysia to take security measures that included preventing the arrival of asylum seekers.

Malaysia increased air and sea patrols along the waters off Sabah to deter arrivals, and a security official in Sabah said he would "alert our forward bases to be on guard against a possible illegal entry of refugees." Malaysia's cabinet agreed to a "shoot-on-sight" order for "intruders" in Malaysian waters, although the government later clarified that the order referred only to "armed intruders."

The U.S. Committee for Refugees (USCR) wrote to the Malaysian government in October expressing concern over the actions. "We understand and respect your government's interest in protecting its citizens from kidnappers," said the letter. "However, increased security and surveillance should not restrict or deter the entry of persons seeking asylum in your country." USCR urged Malaysia to inform and train its security forces patrolling the border regarding the protection of civilians and the rights of persons fleeing persecution.

During a two-week period, Malaysian navy patrols detained about 200 foreign citizens intercepted in waters off Sabah "without proper documents." Malaysia reportedly sought the help of the Philippine government in determining who among 96 Filipinos intercepted should be considered "war refugees" and placed in camps. However, the Malaysian government told UNHCR that it registered no new Filipino refugees in 2000. The government considered those arrested after September to be illegal immigrants and returned them to the Philippines.

Rohingya Refugees from Burma

Nearly 40 ethnic Rohingya refugees and asylum seekers 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.

The Rohingya have no legal status in Malaysia and hold no documents. Malaysia has been unable to return the Rohingya to Burma because Burma denies they are its citizens. In 2000, Malaysia continued deporting some Rohingya to the Thai-Burma border, after which most were believed to have returned 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 1999, UNHCR had denied most of the claims, granting refugee status to only 43. In 2000, another 67 Rohingya approached UNHCR. Of those cases and another six pending from the previous year, UNHCR granted refugee status to five persons. At year's end, 34 UNHCR-recognized Rohingya remained in Malaysia, as several were resettled in other countries and some did not renew their status with UNHCR. Five Rohingya cases were pending.

At least 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. UNHCR said many people, including some government officials, believed the number was more than 10,000 by the end of 2000. UNHCR formerly considered the 5,100 who registered in 1992-93 to be prima facie refugees. However, 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 status determinations, USCR counts only the 34 recognized refugees and 5 pending cases as refugees. USCR regards the 1,536 Rohingya denied by UNHCR, and the remaining 3,400 who have not come forward, to be 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.

In August, Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a report saying Malaysia's treatment of Rohingya refugees "is bad and getting worse." HRW said the Rohingya had suffered beatings, extortion, and arbitrary detention at the hands of Malaysian authorities. "The refugees are forced to live in poverty and constant fear of expulsion from the country," the report said.

HRW said UNHCR's low approval rate of Rohingya asylum seekers suggests that UNHCR is systematically underestimating the dangers Rohingya face if forced back to Burma. It also noted that UNHCR had been unable to stem the abuses suffered by Rohingya in detention or their forced expulsion across the border.

Acehnese Asylum Seekers

Fewer than 150 Indonesians from the province of Aceh (where a separatist movement has been active for 25 years) were refugees in Malaysia at the end of 2000. During the year, UNHCR decided the claims of 96 Acehnese. Of those, it recognized 84 as refugees and rejected 12. One Acehnese case was pending at year's end.

Acehnese groups estimated that another 500 Acehnese who fear persecution in Aceh were in Malaysia at the end of 2000. (A larger number originally came for economic reasons, and some have obtained permanent residence.) Only a small percentage has come forward to UNHCR with requests for asylum. Although UNHCR has recognized some as refugees, it has denied most Acehnese claims. (The high approval rate in 2000 can be attributed to Malaysia's refusal to extend temporary residence to some 100 Acehnese, prompting 53 to approach UNHCR.) USCR considers those denied by UNHCR and those who have not come forward – at least 3,000 – to be in refugee-like circumstances.

In 2000, Malaysia forcibly returned at least three UNHCR-recognized Acehnese refugees. Two of them – a pregnant mother and minor child – were deported despite UNHCR's intervention.

The status of other Acehnese in Malaysia remained insecure. Malaysia detained an unknown number of Acehnese, including some apprehended upon arrival who claimed to be refugees. The government often denied UNHCR access to detained asylum seekers.

In March, during a visit by Malaysian prime minister Mohammad Mahathir, Indonesian president Abdurrahman Wahid sought Malaysia's cooperation in resolving the Aceh situation. Reports said the continued presence of Acehnese refugees in Malaysia was a source of diplomatic friction between the two countries.

Other Developments

In September, a boat carrying 40 Afghans capsized in the strait between Malaysia and Indonesia, causing one 60-year-old female passenger to drown. In recent years, Malaysia has become a transit point for migrants, mostly from the Middle East, who are smuggled into Indonesia and then onto Australia or elsewhere. The situation has prompted Australian officials to seek the cooperation of Malaysia and Indonesia in preventing such migration. In February 2000 alone, Malaysian authorities reportedly detained 119 Iranians and Iraqis found in speedboats heading for Indonesia.

During a site visit to Malaysia in July, USCR became concerned that the UNHCR office in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia's capital, was misapplying UNHCR policy on urban refugees, particularly with respect to "irregular movers." USCR brought to the attention of UNHCR officials the case of an asylum seeker from Iran who had briefly stayed in a Middle Eastern country where he was unable to obtain protection before coming to Malaysia. UNHCR had recognized the asylum seeker as a refugee but declined to provide him with financial assistance or to refer him for resettlement because he had "spent some time" in another country and "had the possibility of stay[ing] there." USCR noted that the policy on irregular movers refers only to persons who moved from a country "where they have already found protection," which did not apply in this case. At year's end, the case had not been resolved.

(In February 2001, Malaysia said it would secure its border against the entry of fleeing Madurese Indonesians from Central Kalimantan on the island of Borneo, which Indonesia shares with Malaysia. The Madurese – transmigrants to Kalimantan from the Indonesian island of Madura – were the target of attacks by ethnic Dayaks.)


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