MYS figures


Malaysia hosted nearly 70,000 refugees from Myanmar, including 25,000 ethnic Chin, 20,000 Mon, and 12,000 Rohingya, and other minorities. It also hosted about 70,000 Filipino Muslim refugees who fled the Moro insurgency in the 1970s.

In October, 11 Thai Muslim refugees out of a group of 131 who fled to Malaysia in August 2005 returned to Thailand.

Refoulement/Physical Protection

Malaysia deported nearly 2,300 refugees and asylum seekers to Thailand, at least 14 of whom Thai authorities deported on to Myanmar. Myanmarese detained three of the deportees upon their arrival there. In deportations to Thailand, officials often gave advance notice to traffickers who kidnapped the deportees or bought them directly from immigration officials. Deportees reported that immigration officials received 900 ringgits (about $272) per person from traffickers. If they could afford it, deportees could bribe the traffickers to return them to Malaysia and one reported paying 1,800 ringgits (about $543). 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 said these deportations were voluntary, but the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) could not always verify this and the harsh conditions in Malaysia's detention facilities made it likely that not all were voluntary. In previous years, deportees who were able to return to Malaysia reported that Myanmarese officials detained them for up to five months, tortured them, and fined them from about 6,000 to 50,000 Myanmar kyats ($1,000 to $7,900).

The People's Volunteer Corps (RELA) often injured refugees and migrants during raids, including one Myanmarese a RELA member blinded with a club. Victims and rights groups accused RELA members of rapes, beatings, theft, destroying UNHCR identity documents, and other abuses. Members received a monthly stipend and an 80 ringgit ($24) bounty for every allegedly illegal migrant they arrested. Also, a bus taking 46 Myanmarese detainees to the border for deportation crashed in September, killing 5 detainees and the Malaysian bus driver, with 10 detainees suffering broken bones and others minor injuries.

The Government had no procedure 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.

UNHCR performed individual status determinations for non-Rohingya asylum seekers under its mandate. Rohingya refugees UNHCR recognized prima facie were not eligible for resettlement. If the authorities arrested and detained them, UNHCR gave them full interviews and those that passed were 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 did not meet the need.

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. Following the 2005 signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between the Free Aceh Movement and the Indonesian Government, Acehnese refugees began returning. There was no formal process for doing so, and many had to purchase false passports to return. Around 27,000 of the Acehnese remained and had to renew their permits by late September 2007.

The Government continued to permit 70,000 refugees from the Philippines' Moro insurgency of the 1970s to remain in Sabah State. The Government did not grant them citizenship, however, rendering their children stateless.

Detention/Access to Courts

Throughout the year, Malaysia conducted raids and detained refugees and asylum seekers along with allegedly illegal migrants. At any given time, an average of 730 refugees and asylum seekers were in immigration detention. RELA conducted as many as 40 raids a night during the year, and through November it had detained more than 30,000 purportedly illegal immigrants, an increase from 25,000 in all of 2006. UNHCR managed to win the release of nearly 1,200 refugees and asylum seekers by the end of July.

In late February and early March, Malaysia detained three refugee infants and five adults when the parents tried to register the births. In late March, authorities released a group of 25 refugees and asylum seekers, including 6 infants less than two months old and their mothers.

In April, RELA raided a market in Kuala Lumpur and detained 33 refugees and asylum seekers from Myanmar for illegal entry or lack of documentation, although upon UNHCR's intervention they released 2 mothers who were nursing infants the same day. On June 25, RELA launched a raid at 2 a.m. against the Chin Refugee Centre and two neighborhoods where Chin refugees lived, arresting nearly 230. Among the detainees were 30 children, 10 refugees slated for resettlement to the United States the next day, 5 pregnant women, and a Chin refugee leader. Malaysia released the Chin leader and the 10 refugees slated for resettlement, but transferred the rest to the Semenyih detention center.

In early August, Malaysia detained 300 Rohingya refugees, including at least 150 recognized by UNHCR. In October, Malaysian authorities arrested 8 Chin women and 13 children after the vehicle they were traveling in was involved in an accident.

Authorities continued to detain more than 120 Thai Muslims who entered in 2005. Unless UNHCR secured their release, Malaysia held detainees until they agreed to deportation: in most cases about six months, although Malaysia held some detainees for more than a year.

In November, the Government announced it was transferring control of the immigration detention centers back to the Immigration Department and that RELA members would be staffing them until it could train full-time staff, perhaps for as long as two years.

Detention centers for illegal immigrants remained overcrowded with poor sanitation, insufficient food and health services, and abusive guards. Detainees reported cells designed for 4 people held 15 to 20 and that staff gave them contaminated drinking water.

UNHCR was usually able to access detention centers, and made several visits during the year. The Human Rights Commission of Malaysia, a governmental body, was able to visit detention centers but needed Government approval. 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. UNHCR provided refugees with volunteer lawyers but, as Malaysia had not ratified most relevant human rights accords, they rarely won. 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.

Refugees with UNHCR cards were usually safe from arrest by regular police, although RELA still detained them. Police still arrested asylum seekers occasionally, as they did not always recognize the letters UNHCR issued asylum seekers. Refugees were subject to prosecution under the 1959 Immigration Act, 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 10,000 ringgit ($3,020) for violations.

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 police sometimes held refugees with UNHCR cards until they paid bribes of 200 to 500 ringgits (about $60 to $145). Authorities arrested those without cards while they were moving about and during house-to-house or workplace raids.

The Immigration Act prohibited renting housing to illegal migrants. Refugees resided illegally where they found jobs. Many Chin refugees lived in makeshift camps in the jungle, near construction sites or other places of employment. The law generally confined Filipino Muslim refugees to the designated area of Sabah.

In March, the home minister called for the establishment of closed camps for refugees and for UNHCR to administer them.

Refugees did not receive international travel documents except for resettlement.

Right to Earn a Livelihood

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

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 162 and 180 ringgit (about $47 and $52), 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 2006, the Government began to issue IMM13 permits to Muslim Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, but stopped amid accusations of bribery and corruption in the issuing process. That left some 4,000 Rohingyas holding receipts proving they paid for IMM13 permits without the permits themselves.

The Immigration Act penalized employers of illegal immigrants with fines of about 10,000 to 50,000 ringgits ($3,020 to $15,100) or, if they employed more than five, imprisonment from six months to five years and up to six cane strokes. Through July, Malaysia had caned 30 refugees and asylum seekers, an increase from 10 in all of 2006. In May, a restaurateur filed suit against RELA for corruption and abuse of power, alleging that a RELA member had detained four of his staff and demanded a bribe of 2,000 ringgit ($604) for their release.

Many refugees worked in the informal sector without legal protection and in unsafe conditions. In January, 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.

Foreign workers with legal permits could join unions, but 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. Workers 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.

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

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 permits granted parents the right to send their children to public schools, the Government allowed them to attend only private schools.

Refugees with UNHCR documents received medical services at half price. Refugees and asylum seekers with HIV/AIDS received free treatment from the public health service. Other than this, authorities provided no medical care, public relief, rationing, or assistance, but did permit independent humanitarian agencies to assist refugees.

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.

USCRI Reports

  • Malaysia Moves Forward on Legal Status for 10,000 Rohingya Refugees from Myanmar (Press Releases)
  • USCR Condemns Malaysia's Arrest and Threat to Forcibly Return Acehnese Asylum Seekers (Press Releases)

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