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The mistake of considering migrants a national security concern

The Malaysian government has been condemning xenophobia at international fora and should do the same in the country.

2 minute read

The Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) is concerned with recent statements, portraying migrants, undocumented or irregular migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers as a threat to the safety and security of the country and a risk to the health of Malaysians.

Strong-armed enforcement upon these communities have, once again, caused a stir and calls have grown for the government to rethink its approach to the situation, to avoid further infringements upon human rights principles or aggravating the current public health crisis.

Since Malaysia is not a state party to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its Optional Protocol of 1967, its national laws do not differentiate between refugees, asylum seekers, and undocumented migrants. Often they are, mistakenly, considered a national security concern.

Suhakam wishes to reiterate that clear differentiation should be made between migrants (including those undocumented) and refugees/asylum seekers. While migrant workers move to another country temporarily for economic reasons, refugees/asylum seekers are those who are unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.

The lack of legal status is a prominent factor resulting in undocumented migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers being exposed to exploitation and prone to being arrested and detained.

Suhakam reminds the government of its commitment to Article 56 of the Asean Consensus on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers, to closely cooperate to resolve the cases of migrant workers who frequently become undocumented due to no fault of their own.

Instilling fear through threats of arrests and detention of undocumented foreigners is counter-productive, in light of ongoing efforts to overcome the pandemic and the urgency to achieve herd immunity. It is also important to recognise the role of UNHCR, and the issuance of UNHCR cards which affords refugees and asylum seekers some protection and “legality” to remain in the country.

The Malaysian government has been condemning xenophobia at international fora and should do the same in the country. We should work towards typifying the spirit of empathy and humanity that Malaysians are known for.

The government should commit to strictly observing the international principle of non-refoulement of refugees/asylum seekers, and instead undertake to protect and provide the migrant and refugee community with necessary assistance to be able to live their lives in dignity, able to seek work, access to education, healthcare and shelter while in the country.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of MalaysiaNow.