Malaysia’s treatment of asylum seekers – rated as poor to cruel

Even though, according to international law, everyone has the right to seek asylum (Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), and detention should only ever be used as a last resort, thousands of Asylum Seekers are facing persecution for the act of seeking asylum from persecution around the world. 

One such example is in Thailand, which I had the opportunity to witness first hand, visiting Asylum Seekers in the community, in the Immigration Detention Centers in Bangkok, and meeting with UNHCR directly this April. 

The other country in our region which has received some attention in the media lately for it’s cruel treatment of asylum seekers is Malaysia. 

There are 150,000 refugees and asylum seekers registered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Malaysia, who have fled from places such as Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Syria, and Somalia. 

Every day, over one thousand people visit the UN compound in Malaysia, set in an old colonial bungalow in Kuala Lumpur. 

Malaysia makes up one of the largest groups of urban refugees in the world.

UNHCR operates in Malaysia, even though it is not a signatory to key international conventions on refugees and migrants. The situation is the same in Thailand. 

This makes it very difficult to call these Nation States up for their treatment of asylum seekers in their countries and hold them accountable. 

It also makes it extremely difficult to advocate for the rights of asylum seekers specifically on the grounds that they are asylum seekers, if the international law recognizing the rights of asylum seekers doe snot have jurisdiction in that Nation. 

Even more concerning is Malaysia’s forcible return of three Sri Lankan men against international legal principle of non-refoulement, which forbids countries to return persons to their country of origin if they face a threat to their lives or freedoms. Human Rights Watch reported such returns this time last year. 

According to Human Rights Watch, the three men were already under the protection of the United Nations Refugee agency; UNHCR, with two men recognized as refugees, and the third awaiting his determination.  

In both Malaysia and Thailand, it has been reported and witnessed and documented that the local authorities disregard the asylum seeker’s Refugee Status under the UNHCR. 

Upon making first contact with the UNHCR, each asylum seekers is issued with an Asylum Seeker Certificate, which gives the asylum seeker a UNHCR registration number, stating that the individual is a person of concern to the UNHCR, and that the person should be protected form forcible return to a country where he claims to face threats to their life or freedom.

This Certificate expires annually, pending UNHCR review and processing. 

In both Thailand and Malaysia, it ha been reported and documented that local authorities are grabbing the Asylum Seeker Certificates off people, tearing it up, and forcibly detaining them under their local laws. This occurs without UNHCR local intervention. 

This is indeed a violation of their rights, and of international law. 

So, for now, all we can do is send aid, support the asylum seekers by families individually or through humanitarian visas, or urge our government to give more to UNHCR refugee programs, ensuring that the refugee status determination process of these asylum seekers and their families will not take years. Years of uncertainty and cost. 

Below is a link to the recent Al-Jazeera interview with Mr. Richard Towel, a UNHCR representative in Malaysia on the current state of refugees and asylum seekers. The interview also includes under cover investigative work on on the real situation asylum seekers have to face living in Detention Centers in Malaysia. 

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