Malaysia: A Place of Refuge


Bernard Goh

“Fire. There was fire everywhere. The rioters set fire to my house as delirium set in. I scrambled out of my village on foot, carrying my baby while I left behind everything I had. That was a month before I left for Malaysia with other Rohingyas, escaping violence and oppression. I didn’t just lose my home, I also lost my husband. I have nothing left back in Myanmar.”

This is just one of many harrowing accounts relayed by Rohingya refugees in Malaysia when I sat down to chat with them months ago. It is a common story. For many, pictures and videos of recent events in Aleppo have shocked their conscience and opened their eyes to the horrors that refugees are running from. The same can be said for the Rohingya in Myanmar. They have suffered state-sponsored oppression, inter-ethnic violence, and being caught in between Bangladeshi-Myanmar geopolitics for decades. However, their plight has only recently been widely publicised due to the events in recent memory: the 2015 Rohingya Boat People Crisis and the 2016 Military Crackdown in the Rakhine State. These latest spades of attacks have taken the Malaysian public sphere by storm as citizens share words of solidarity with those in suffering and voice out strong objections.

Recently, the Malaysian government’s tone towards Myanmar has escalated in anger and sternness in response to violence in the Rakhine State, where the military clampdown has sent hundreds scampering across the border to Bangladesh. However, many expressed their displeasure that the Malaysian government is “allegedly” only paying lip service and not doing their part to lift the Rohingya’s sorrows. They are generally unhappy with Malaysia’s status as a non-party in the 1951 Refugee Convention and our country’s “perceived” ill-treatment of displaced people. However, things are not as black and white as I once thought; the refugee situation in Malaysia, Southeast Asia, and the world is not defined in binaries.

Firstly, the 1951 Refugee Convention is outdated and ill-suited to serve as a framework for today’s complex global migratory problems. Unfortunately, the convention is still the final arbiter for refugee migration, with its archaic and narrow distinction between genuine and illegitimate irregular migrants. This convention was drafted as an answer to the World War II refugee crisis where around 20 to 30 million people were displaced within Europe alone. At the onset of the Cold War, the new wave of European migrants was mostly comprised of those escaping communism and the oppression that came with it. The repercussions of sending such refugees back to their countries of origin were dire as communist nations purposefully and mercilessly persecuted returning citizens. This led to the definition of refugees as individuals with a “well-founded fear of being persecuted.”

The refugees of today, however, are mostly displaced not because of politics but due to economic hardship or sectarian conflict. They are not fleeing totalitarianism and state-sponsored oppression but economic scarcity, lack of opportunities, and insecurity. The majority of those who reside in contemporary refugee camps would not fit the convention’s standard. Malaysia doesn’t need to and shouldn’t sign the convention as it is outdated. Despite not being party to the treaty, Malaysia’s treatment and leniency towards those displaced by war, poverty, and oppression have been exemplary.

Comparatively speaking, Malaysia is much more humane and accommodating towards asylum seekers when compared to some of the countries often brought up for comparison, like Singapore and Australia. For instance, Malaysian authorities have generally turned a blind eye towards the existence of asylum seekers in the country. They are allowed to live in relative peace and security if they are legal and have received refugee identification cards from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). These legal refugees are allowed to stay in Malaysia until their resettlement to “destination” countries like the United States. With no definite timeline, there is generally an understanding that leniency exists to allow them to stay until resettlement or reparation.

Take Singapore for instance: Asylum seekers are flat-out denied right of entry. This refusal is generally justified by the city state’s perceived land size limitations, which doesn’t stand up to judicious scrutiny. This is because it contradicts Singapore’s own ambitions to grow its population to 7 million from 5.5 million by 2030, coupled with known efforts to reclaim and increase land area.

Now, let’s compare Malaysia to Australia. Australia is infamous for its offshore refugee detention camps that equate to torture. Asylum seekers en route to Australia by sea are intercepted and redirected to camps in Nauru or Papua New Guinea, indefinitely. The conditions in these camps are often cited as completely inadequate, unhygienic, and cramped. Compounding the terrible conditions asylum seekers have to endure during their processing is the fact that they will not be able to settle in Australia, even if proven to be legitimate refugees. Instead, they may be settled in either Nauru or Papua New Guinea.

Malaysia is already doing more than its neighbouring countries – of much better “perceived” repute – when it comes to allowing foreign residents to claim asylum and seek shelter in Malaysia during processing. Our system is comparable with Canada’s where asylum can be claimed within Canada and a date for a formal hearing to determine refugee status will be set by the Canadian Immigration and Refugee Board. Asylum seekers in Malaysia and Canada both have access to community support such as legal NGOS and humanitarian agencies.

On employment, asylum seekers are generally not allowed to seek legal employment and formal education for a myriad of complex reasons, such as the lack of opportunities for Malaysian citizens themselves and the fact that the majority of them are economic migrants, not genuine refugees. However, the Malaysian government has been lenient and kind in allowing refugees to work informally in order to financially support themselves. On top of that, the children of asylum seekers are also allowed to enroll into schools run by the local community and NGOs. These children have often been able to pursue education up to the secondary level, with some even qualifying for college.

Moving forward, the UNHCR in Malaysia has recently announced it was working with the authorities on a pilot scheme to allow Rohingya refugees to work in the country. Under the pilot programme, a group of 300 Rohingya would be authorised to be legally employed in the plantation and manufacturing industry paving the way for a comprehensive employment scheme for refugees in Malaysia. This is great progress seeing as relaxing the refugee work policy might cause an influx of migrant workers. However, Malaysian authorities are leading the way to allow refugees in Malaysia to increase their self-reliance and contribute to the Malaysian labour market.

Contrary to public opinion, Malaysia’s stance and treatment towards asylum seekers are enviable compared to its neighbouring countries. There lies no doubt that Malaysia has contributed significantly to assist those genuinely fleeing persecution in their home countries and will continue to do so in the foreseeable future. I am proud to say that the Malaysian government has done remarkably well, despite the difficulty of balancing domestic needs and international obligations. From my point of view, the authorities will only improve in their policies and treatment towards asylum seekers.