Rights activists are ruffled by what they say is an “increasingly worrying narrative” from top immigration and home ministry officials on managing refugees in the country, while a diplomatic source says it could put Putrajaya in direct conflict with UNHCR, the United Nations’ refugees commission, MalaysiaNow has learnt.
This comes amid speculation that a mass deportation of refugees could be in the works, as part of a grand plan by the home ministry to ensure zero illegal migrants, which would impact tens of thousands of Rohingya and other groups who fled violence in Myanmar.
MalaysiaNow also understands that any new plan for an anti-refugee move will not sit well with the foreign ministry, which under Hishammuddin Hussein has been trying to build rapport with UNHCR in the wake of negative publicity over Malaysia’s treatment of migrants.
But beyond its international image, there are also concerns that a reversal of earlier commitments by Putrajaya to protect the rights of refugees could deal a blow to its diplomatic image, and ultimately upset its campaign to be elected to the UN’s Human Rights Council (UNHRC).
As early as 2019, Malaysia had announced its interest in a seat at the council, with then-foreign minister Saifuddin Abdullah giving the government’s commitment to the plight of Rohingya refugees.
In February 2019, Saifuddin told a UNHRC meeting in Geneva that while Malaysia would like to repatriate Rohingya refugees, this would be done on a voluntary basis and in a “dignified” manner, in a break from the past practice of lumping refugees together with other undocumented migrants and deporting them to their home countries.
In December last year, Hishammuddin formally announced Malaysia’s bid for a UNHRC seat for the 2022-2024 term.
Malaysia was first elected to the council in 2006 but its membership was discontinued after 2013, and recent statements from Home Minister Hamzah Zainudin could delay its return.
“He has been critical of UNHCR and repeatedly talked about deporting refugees even in the full knowledge that for many of them, it would be like being sent to the Killing Fields,” a source told MalaysiaNow.
On Wednesday, during a buka puasa event with journalists hosted by his ministry, Hamzah hit out at the UNHCR, accusing it of failing to help Malaysia repatriate refugees to third countries.
The UNHCR office in Malaysia issues ID cards to Rohingya refugees in the country but the move has done little to prevent arrests during immigration operations.
“At one time, during the Vietnam War, many refugees fled so we were forced to use the services of the UNHCR to help us repatriate them to a third country.
“Today, there are almost 200,000 refugees. Not one of them has been taken over by UNHCR to send them to a third country,” Hamzah said.
When contacted, a source in UNHCR disputed the claim, saying it has worked with the authorities and has since resettled many refugees in third countries.
The UNHCR office in Malaysia issues ID cards to Rohingya refugees in the country in order to differentiate them from other migrants. But due to Malaysia’s official stance against recognising refugee status, the move has done little to prevent arrests during immigration operations.
Malaysia’s treatment of refugees and migrants entered the spotlight again at the height of the movement control order (MCO) last year.
This was after foreign workers and refugees in Kuala Lumpur were seen being rounded up by immigration officers despite official assurances that no enforcement would be carried out during the pandemic.
Immigration detention centres later reported new Covid-19 clusters with a spike of cases among the migrants.
The bad publicity came in spite of authorities such as the federal territories and health ministries helping tens of thousands of migrants including Rohingya refugees who were stranded in cities following the various lockdowns throughout the Covid-19 pandemic last year.
The government had then spent millions ensuring basic supplies for thousands of undocumented migrants stranded in Kuala Lumpur, as well as for foreign workers out of a job following the MCO.
A similar humanitarian gesture was seen in the massive Covid-19 vaccination programme, when the government agreed to bear the cost of vaccinating millions of foreigners in the country including undocumented migrants.
Now, critics note the lack of similar sentiments from the immigration authorities, and the soundbites coming from the home ministry appear to confirm their concerns.
Earlier this year, authorities also deported more than 1,000 undocumented migrants from Myanmar, even as activists resorted to legal channels to stop the move, citing the danger to their lives in the wake of the coup by the Myanmar junta in February.
Just last week, Hamzah derided rights NGOs critical of the government’s policies on refugees, telling them to instead bear the cost of taking care of them.
Rights group Lawyers for Liberty today spoke of “a progression of an increasingly regressive immigration policy” and an “unjustified” crackdown against migrant workers.
“The ministry must differentiate between genuine refugees such as the Rohingya whom the UNHRC has validated.”
“We can draw no other conclusion other than that the government is encouraging and implementing xenophobia in its policies and enforcement of the law with absolute disregard to the impact it has on all foreigners who are currently in Malaysia,” it said in a statement on the directive for foreigners with expired social visit passes to leave the country by April 21.
The group’s coordinator Zaid Malek also warned that continuing down “this destructive path may negatively impact Malaysia’s international image and foreign relations”.
When contacted, a diplomatic source told MalaysiaNow that the home ministry’s direction was not in sync with Wisma Putra’s.
“The ministry must differentiate between genuine refugees such as the Rohingya whom the UNHRC has validated. Under international laws, it is wrong to repatriate them,” it said.
The source also reminded Hamzah of his expression of sympathy for the plight of the Rohingya during his time as deputy foreign minister under the Barisan Nasional administration.
“What happened? If the issue is about undocumented workers, then take care of that. Don’t take aim at refugees especially those recognised by the UNHCR,” the source added.
It said the Malaysian government had yet to take up an offer by UNHCR to train immigration officers in validating genuine refugees, one of the problems cited by authorities hesitant about accepting the UNHCR IDs.
“UNHCR also opened its doors for officers to undertake a one-year course to understand the implementation and the process of its ID cards. Eventually, we would have had our own database for refugees instead of relying on UNHRC. We did not accept the offer,” it added.