Acknowledge, respect refugee rights the right thing to do

Oleh Azril Mohd Amin

The World Refugee Day commemorated recently on June 20, passed with minimal public acknowledgment in Malaysia, which is surprising given our significant role on the global stage as a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council (2022-2024) and as the next Asean chairman in 2025.

According to data from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Malaysia currently hosts some 188,210 refugees and asylum seekers, with 89 per cent originating from Myanmar. This includes some 108,862 Rohingya refugees.

The remaining refugees come from over 50 countries such as Pakistan, Yemen, Syria and Somalia. This diverse refugee population is primarily concentrated in urban areas like the Klang Valley, Johor and Penang.

Malaysia still has not ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention, nor developed a comprehensive legal framework to manage and protect refugees. Consequently, refugees are classified as illegal immigrants under the Immigration Act 1959/63 which exposes them to arrest, detention and deportation.

This legal status severely restricts their access to essential services and legal employment, contravening international human rights standards.

According to the 1951 Refugee Convention, refugees should not face penalties for illegal entry or presence if they present themselves without delay to the authorities and show good cause for their illegal entry or stay.

Healthcare access for refugees in Malaysia is significantly limited due to their legal status and the high costs of services. Refugee children, in particular, face substantial barriers to accessing basic health and nutritional needs which are essential for their growth and development.

Education poses another critical challenge. Many refugee children cannot enrol in public schools and must rely on inconsistent and underfunded informal education, provided by UNHCR and non-governmental organisations (NGOs). This significantly hampers their development and future prospects.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) mandates that states ensure access to education for all children – a requirement Malaysia currently fails to meet.

Public awareness and social integration efforts are also lacking. Social stigma, hate speech and discrimination against refugees exacerbate their vulnerabilities and hinder their ability to integrate into the society.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) emphasises that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights, underscoring the need for us to foster a more inclusive society.

The following are some immediate actions that Malaysia can pursue in the near future to improve its response towards the plight of the refugees:

1. Ratify the 1951 Refugee Convention: This would provide a legal framework for the protection and rights of refugees and ensure that they are not treated as illegal immigrants.

2. Develop inclusive healthcare policies: Implementing a tiered healthcare subsidy system for refugees and training healthcare providers on the specific needs of refugees will enhance healthcare delivery.

3. Ensure educational access: Establish pathways for refugee children to enrol in public schools and support vocational training programs for older refugees in ensuring they receive quality education and opportunities for personal development.

4. Combat discrimination and promote awareness: Launch public awareness campaigns and community-based initiatives to reduce stigma and hate speech and foster solidarity with refugees.

5. Strengthen partnerships with international organisations, NGOs and the private sector to enhance support for refugees and bring in global best practices and expertise.

World Refugee Day 2024 serves as a poignant reminder of the urgent need for us to address the legal and structural barriers faced by refugees.

By adopting inclusive policies and fostering a supportive environment, we can improve the lives of refugees and uphold the values of compassion and solidarity, essential for a cohesive and humane society.

As Malaysia is preparing for its leadership role in Asean in 2025, setting a clear and compassionate stance on refugee issues will be crucial in promoting regional stability and human rights.


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