Malaysia hosted nearly 59,000 refugees and asylum seekers at the end of 2002, the overwhelming majority (57,000) Filipino Muslims.
At year's end, 1,578 asylum seekers had claims pending with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Another 400 had been granted refugee status by UNHCR.
At least 5,000 Rohingya and 3,000 Acehnese lived in Malaysia under refugee-like circumstances.
Although Malaysia is not a party to the UN Refugee Convention and has no system for adjudicating asylum claims, until 1998 the government generally respected grants of refugee status by UNHCR. Thereafter, Malaysia began forcibly returning Indonesian Acehnese whom UNHCR had determined to be refugees, as well as others who had not yet approached UNHCR.
In 2002, Malaysia launched a massive crackdown to rid the country of an estimated 1.5 million undocumented immigrants and amended its immigration law to confer harsh penalties against all such persons present after July 31. The government said that no exceptions would be made for asylum seekers. Prior to the amendments, Malaysia's immigration laws allowed for the exemption of specific individuals or categories of persons. The government said the measures were necessary to address crime and unemployment, and to root out terrorists – particularly in the eastern province of Sabah, close to the conflict-prone southern Philippine island of Mindanao.
In March, Malaysia's prime minister announced the new penalties for undocumented immigration: up to five years' imprisonment, a maximum fine of $2,000 (10,000 Malaysian), and mandatory whipping.
Hundreds of thousands of migrant workers left before the deadline. Many asylum seekers, however – particularly Burmese Rohingya and Indonesian Acehnese who feared persecution if they returned home – could not. In five incidents, asylum seekers fearing arrest and deportation forced their way into the UNHCR compound in the capital of Kuala Lumpur, seeking protection.
More than 57,000 Filipino Muslim refugees remained in Malaysia, primarily in Sabah, having fled fighting between the armed forces of the Philippines and Muslim insurgents, including those who want a separate Muslim state. Most arrived in Sabah in the 1970s, UNHCR assisted them between 1977 and 1987. The Malaysian government regards the 57,000 Filipinos as refugees and permits them to reside legally. There is also a much larger population of undocumented Filipino migrant workers in Sabah.
The Filipino refugees hold special one-year passes that must be renewed annually. The refugees can legally work, attend school, and receive basic social and medical services. However, they do not receive permanent residence status, and the government must approve their movements outside of Sabah on a case-by-case basis.
In July 2001, Malaysia announced that it had "revoked" their refugee status. Officials said they would allow them to remain in the country if they had a place to stay and obtained work passes, which would be annually renewable. Those without work passes would be deported. According to UNHCR, however, the official change has had no practical impact.
In early 2002, UNHCR received applications from 13 persons from the southern Philippines for refugee status. UNHCR adjudicated 12 of the claims, granting all.
Malaysia's 2002 crackdown on undocumented migrants resulted in thousands of Filipino workers being detained. UNHCR said that it contacted Sabah officials to determine whether any refugees or asylum seekers were among the detained and was assured that none were.
In July, after the separatist war in the southern Philippines once again heated up, Malaysia deployed aircraft to detect Filipinos (including possible separatist rebels) entering Sabah. On July 3, Malaysia's defense minister reported that more refugees were entering Sabah than before and that the government had detained 150 of them. UNHCR said that it was not aware of this and that Sabah officials had referred no Filipino asylum seekers to the refugee agency.
In late 2001, Nur Misuari, a former rebel leader in the southern Philippines and later governor of a semi-autonomous region there, fled to Malaysia. He sought the protection of UNHCR, but Malaysia detained him and denied UNHCR officials access to him. Malaysia deported Misuari back to the Philippines in January 2002.
Rohingya Refugees from Burma
Several thousand Rohingya Muslims have been in Malaysia for more than a decade, having fled religious and ethnic persecution in Burma. Malaysia has been unable to return the Rohingya to Burma because the Burmese regime denies that they are its citizens.
In 1998, nearly 1,600 Rohingya approached UNHCR for the first time to request refugee status. By the end of 2000, UNHCR had denied most of the claims, approving only 48. UNHCR approved one more claim in 2001 and 46 in 2002. At year's end, 139 Rohingya claims were pending with UNHCR.
In January, 28 Rohingya forced their way into the UNHCR compound in Kuala Lumpur. UNHCR officials allowed the group to stay while their claims for refugee status were considered. The next day, however, UNHCR denied all of the claims and allowed the Malaysian police to arrest the group.
In mid-June, two more groups of Rohingya, 18 in total, forced their way into the UNHCR compound. The Rohingya remained there for nine days before being denied status by UNHCR and handed over to Malaysian authorities.
Two additional break-ins occurred in late June and mid-July. In both incidents, the asylum seekers left the compound voluntarily and were subsequently interviewed by UNHCR.
On August 1, the day the new immigration penalties became effective, Malaysian authorities arrested 127 persons, including 32 Rohingya, outside the UNHCR office and transferred them to detention centers. UNHCR was granted full access to the asylum seekers to determine their refugee status.
Malaysian authorities routinely transport Burmese Rohingya to the Malaysia-Thailand border and cross the Rohingya over into Thailand after dark.
While the Rohingya Heritage Foundation believed there to be as many as 14,000 Rohingya in Malaysia during 2002, other sources put the figure at 10,000. UNHCR still considers 5,100 Rohingya (based on a 1992–93 registration exercise) to be "of concern," since they have no legal status in Malaysia.
The U.S. Committee for Refugees (USCR) considers the Rohingya denied by UNHCR and those who have not come forward for status determination – a total of about 5,000 – to be living in refugee-like circumstances.
The Rohingya's lack of legal status and the actions of UNHCR prompted human rights groups to sharply criticize the refugee agency. The groups reiterated a charge asserted in a 2000 Human Rights Watch report that UNHCR underestimated the risks faced by Rohingya if forcibly returned to Burma. UNHCR said it was constrained by the fact that Malaysia is not a party to the Refugee Convention, as well as by the Convention's definition of a refugee.
Between August and December, UNHCR issued more than 5,000 letters to Rohingya in Malaysia (including persons it had denied as refugees), confirming that the holders of the letters were registered with UNHCR as Rohingya from Burma. According to UNHCR, the so-called " Rohingya letters" appear to have afforded the Rohingya "a degree of protection" in the form of less harassment, arrest, and detention.
Acehnese Asylum Seekers
Some 144 Indonesians from the province of Aceh (where a separatist movement has been active since 1976) were UNHCR-recognized refugees in Malaysia at the end of 2002. The number of Acehnese who approached UNHCR in Malaysia rose dramatically in the past couple of years, from only 53 persons in 2000 to more than 1,400 in 2002.
UNHCR decided the claims of 360 Acehnese (including cases pending from the previous year), approving 86. At year's end, nearly 1,200 Acehnese cases were pending.
Acehnese groups estimated that another 3,000 Acehnese who fear persecution were in Malaysia at year's end. USCR considers those denied by UNHCR and those who have not yet applied to UNHCR for protection to be living in refugee-like circumstances.
As with the Burmese Rohingya, Acehnese asylum seekers were arrested and detained in the immigration crackdown. Of the 127 persons taken into custody by the Malaysian authorities on August 1, nearly 100 were Acehnese. All reportedly remained in detention at year's end.
In September, according to SUARAM, a Malaysian human rights organization, Malaysia arrested dozens of Acehnese who had UNHCR refugee status and were awaiting resettlement in other countries.
Although members of the Acehnese separatist group are among the Acehnese seeking refuge in Malaysia, most arrivals have been civilians fleeing the violence, along with human rights activists, humanitarian workers, students, and journalists.
Burmese Chin Asylum Seekers
In 2002, representatives of the Chin Refugee Committee said that between 3,000 and 5,000 ethnic Chin from Burma – who are predominantly Christian – had fled to Malaysia during the past several years. Like other asylum seekers, they are without legal status in Malaysia and face the threat of return to Burma.
During 2002, UNHCR decided the claims of 200 Chin asylum seekers, approving 60. About 100 Chin claims were pending with UNHCR at year's end.