Malaysia needs to address plight of refugees in the country


TODAY, the Malaysian Bar remembers and commemorates World Refugee Day. 

This is a day designated by the United Nations (UN) to honour refugees around the world. Falling annually on June 20, World Refugee Day recognises and acknowledges the strength and courage of people who have been forced to leave everything behind in their home countries, including their family members, to escape conflict or persecution. Such people must then rebuild their lives in a foreign country as a foreign people. 

As of end-May 2022, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Malaysia reported that there are some 182,960 refugees and asylum seekers registered with them in Malaysia. Some 67% of these refugees and asylum seekers are men, while 33% are women. Further, there are approximately 46,570 refugees and asylum seekers below the age of 18.

In Malaysia, we do not have an effective legal framework in place to legitimise and protect refugees within our borders. Consequently, refugees in Malaysia struggle to obtain basic necessities and are not afforded critical legal protection.  

They are not legally allowed to work, making them vulnerable to exploitation. Their children cannot go to school, they face challenges in accessing healthcare, among others.  

Examples of the struggles faced by refugees include the recent report of an Immigration Department raid that took place in a condominium where tenants held valid UNHCR cards, as well as attempts by the condominium management body to enforce a ruling prohibiting property owners from renting out condominium units to refugees.

The Malaysian Bar continues its call for the Malaysian government to ratify the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, both of which are instruments of international law that set out the rights of refugees.  

In addition, we urge the government to establish a legal and administrative framework to properly address the plight of refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia. We also hope that Malaysians will respond to this vulnerable group with compassion and kindness. 

Now more than ever, we see that countries cannot claim ignorance of the suffering of others as we realise that we face common problems and threats that cannot be overcome without joint effort. 

Refugees and asylum seekers are people who have been forced to leave their home countries due to dire circumstances. The Malaysian Bar believes in and hopes for a Malaysia that responds to refugees and asylum seekers with respect, understanding and humanity.

Karen Cheah Yee Lynn is the president of the Malaysian Bar.