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Malaysia Mulls Closing UN Refugee Agency Office, Sparking Refoulement Fears 

FILE - Rohingya Muslim children recite from the holy Quran at a school in Klang, on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Sept. 12, 2017.
FILE - Rohingya Muslim children recite from the holy Quran at a school in Klang, on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Sept. 12, 2017.

Malaysia says it is considering plans to shutter the local office of the United Nations’ refugee agency, amid accusations the government is forcibly returning Burmese asylum seekers who have fled Myanmar for their lives.

The military regime that seized power in Myanmar early last year says Malaysia has repatriated hundreds of its nationals on chartered flights in recent months. The junta claims they’re coming home by choice. But rights groups say Malaysia is forcing them back — after arresting them for entering illegally — and that some are probably asylum seekers who will be arrested and possibly tortured or killed on their return.

Myanmar’s military is accused of arresting and killing thousands of its people in a bloody bid to crush a dogged civil and armed resistance to its rule. Dissidents, journalists and military defectors have been pouring into nearby countries, including Malaysia, for sanctuary.

Speaking with local reporters in early September, Malaysia’s National Security Council chief, Rodzi Mohamed Saad, said the government had prepared a draft plan for managing the country’s refugees without the U.N.’s refugee agency, the UNHCR, and “without foreign interference.”

He criticized the UNHCR for issuing its own ID cards — without the government’s case-by-case input or approval — to asylum seekers judged to have legitimate claims or fears of being persecuted back home. Though the cards carry no official legal weight in Malaysia, Rodzi called the practice “unfair” and said it amounted to “disrespecting the country.”

Responding to questions about the plan in parliament a few weeks ago, Abdul Latiff Ahmad, a top aide to Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob, said preparations to take over from the United Nations were already underway. “Therefore, there is no longer a need for a UNHCR office in Malaysia,” he said.

At another news conference on October 27, Home Minister Hamzah Zainudin said the plan had not yet been approved but was still under review. Picking up on the security chief’s themes of respect and self-reliance, he added, “I must take care of our country first before taking care of outsiders.”

Refoulement risk

Rights groups have roundly rebuked the idea, fearing the UNHCR’s exit would see a spike in refoulements, the forced return of refugees to countries where they’re likely to be persecuted.

“The likely risk of refoulement for refugees in Malaysia would increase if UNHCR were to leave,” said Patrick Phongsathorn, a human rights advocate for Fortify Rights, a research and pressure group covering Southeast Asia.

“Refugees often see UNHCR as an important and somewhat neutral arbiter in their cases, whereas the government of Malaysia has historically, and continues to, target refugees,” he added.

“I think that it [refoulement] will definitely increase because at least now you have someone watching over them,” said Mahi Ramakrishnan, director of Beyond Borders Malaysia, a refugee rights group.

In concert with local groups like her own, she added, “there is that element of someone monitoring what’s happening, and especially the UNHCR, which has the international protection mandate. Now imagine if that has been taken away completely.”

Malaysia currently hosts some 180,000 refugees and asylum seekers, according to the UNHCR, most of them from Myanmar.

The ID cards it issues to vetted and approved applicants don’t always spare the holders’ arrest when caught by police without proof that they’re living in Malaysia legally, Ramakrishnan said, but they can, and sometimes do.

She and others are hoping the recent talk of closing the UNHCR office is mere political bluster ahead of the national elections set for November 19, a cynical bid for votes amid the tide of xenophobia stirred up by the pandemic. But they also worry it may be more than that, having sensed growing tensions between the office and its host for a few years.

With little apparent warning or explanation, the government stopped allowing UNHCR staff into the country’s immigration detention centers in 2019, making it impossible for the agency to offer them any assistance, let alone cards.

In July, the Home Ministry also announced that all UNHCR card holders would now have to register with a new Tracking Refugees Information System so that their whereabouts could be monitored.

Transition talks

Tricia Yeoh, CEO of Malaysia’s Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs, a research and policy organization, said the tracking system could be the start of what may eventually become a government-run program for managing refugees. But she added that it would have to evolve into a far more comprehensive approach that cares for refugees’ and asylum seekers’ wellbeing as well.

For that, she said the government should start by signing up to the U.N.’s Refugee Convention, which sets some basic conditions for how to treat refugees, with non-refoulement at the top of the list. Yeoh said other key reforms should include giving refugees and asylum seekers the right to public health care and education and to work, which they don’t yet have.

“So, it’s not just about the signing of these international documents, but also what the local laws entail. That would mean that basic access to health care and education would need to be provided, and certain laws and policies would need to be changed in order to accommodate that,” she said.

With the political will to see those reforms through, Yeoh said they could probably be put in place within a few years.

The local UNHCR office also told VOA that building a comprehensive system for managing refugees tends to take governments years and that the agency was already working with Malaysian authorities on a “framework” for sharing refugee data, joint registration and screening.

Spokeswoman Yante Ismail said their latest meetings were held earlier this month.

“UNHCR welcomes the Malaysian government’s continued interest in establishing a national framework to manage the refugee situation in the country that may eventually result in the government assuming greater responsibility for refugee management and protection,” she said.

Yante added that the agency remained committed to a gradual transition of responsibility “based on the country’s capacity and expertise to take on refugee management in line with international protection principles.”