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Rights group slams proposal to close UN refugee office in Malaysia

Lawyers for Liberty says the protection of refugees and asylum seekers is not an issue that should be defined as foreign interference.

Staff Writers
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Lorries from the immigration department carrying Rohingya detainees leave a temporary detention depot in Relau Bandar Baharu. Photo: Bernama
Lorries from the immigration department carrying Rohingya detainees leave a temporary detention depot in Relau Bandar Baharu. Photo: Bernama

Rights group Lawyers for Liberty (LFL) today hit out at a proposal by the National Security Council (MKN) to shut down the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) office in the country, questioning its assertion that the government should manage refugees and undocumented migrants without "foreign interference". 

In a statement, LFL director Zaid Malek said the protection of refugees and asylum seekers was not an issue that should be defined as foreign interference.

"It is an acknowledgement of the suffering of those displaced due to war or strife, and the responsibility to protect them from harm," he said. 

"Malaysia, having been elected to the United Nations Human Rights Council, must embody international human rights principles not only abroad but also in our own shores. Shutting down the UNHCR will undoubtedly damage Malaysia’s international standing and reputation."

MKN director-general Rodzi Md Saad had said on Sept 6 that the council was studying the pros and cons of shutting down the UNHCR office in Malaysia and improving the management of refugees in the country. 

He also said that MKN would need to strengthen the planned mechanisms and ensure the orderly implementation of its proposal before recommending it to the government. 

Zaid said the UNHCR played an integral role in identifying the refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia, and in giving them the necessary protection and social aid. 

"Malaysia also has a longstanding working relationship with UNHCR beginning in 1975, where both worked together to shelter Vietnamese refugees. 

"Even more recently, during the Covid-19 outbreak, both cooperated closely to ensure the safe vaccination of undocumented migrants, which ultimately benefited not only the migrants but Malaysians as well," he said. 

He also questioned MKN's plan to handle such groups "directly", saying the home ministry's "appalling track record" did not create confidence in the council's assurances of a framework to manage undocumented migrants and refugees in Malaysia. 

"UNHCR cardholders are constantly harassed by the enforcement authorities and many have been detained indefinitely and illegally in immigration depots, actions which thus far have been sanctioned by the home ministry and the government. 

"The conditions in these depots are horrible and many children are reported to have died there."

Citing the deportation of more than 1,000 Myanmar nationals last year despite the ongoing military coup in the country, Zaid added: "Whatever framework that is in the works is highly suspect and cannot be expected to be up to international standards, especially when Malaysia is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention.

"If the government truly wants to deal with refugees through local enforcement, they must first ratify the 1951 Refugee Convention, without which any replacement for UNHCR in Malaysia would be viewed with distrust."

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