On November 19, millions of Malaysian voters will go to the polls to decide the course of their country for the next five years.
But while Malaysians vote in a spirit of hope for the country they want to see, the 183,000 refugees who also live there are watching warily amid what appears to be a recent hardening of rhetoric towards asylum seekers and refugees.
Considered “illegal immigrants” under Malaysian law, refugees are one of the most marginalised and vulnerable communities in the country, with no right to work nor access to formal education.
Like most of its neighbours in Southeast Asia, Malaysia is not a signatory to the UN’s 1951 refugee convention or the 1967 protocol, but in recent months the government of incumbent Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob has returned asylum seekers to Myanmar, launched a new tracking system for refugees and announced its commitment to closing down the offices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which currently handles protection needs for asylum seekers and refugees.
“The presence of UNHCR offices is seen to be the biggest pulling factor towards the increased arrival of foreign migrants,” a cabinet minister, Abd Latiff Ahmad, said in a parliamentary reply to then-opposition member of parliament Charles Santiago on October 7 shortly before the house was dissolved.
Ismail Sabri, who is a vice president of the United Malays National Organisation, is campaigning for re-election as part of the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition against two other broad coalitions, including BN’s current partner in government Perikatan Nasional (PN) and Pakatan Harapan, which won the last election in May 2018 but collapsed amid political manoeuvring.
Human Rights Watch’s Asia deputy director, Phil Robertson, told Al Jazeera that some see the moves as an election ploy.
“Many observers believe that the Home Affairs Minister is pushing this issue hard for political reasons, to try and scapegoat UNHCR as the problem, which plays well with parts of the conservative electorate who are more xenophobic and anti-refugee,” he said.
“That’s a real shame because refugees should not be demonised for any reason because it puts people’s lives at risk.”
‘Terrible and sad’
Many refugees are alarmed at the potential closure of the UNHCR offices.
The agency not only assesses protection needs but also helps verify the identity of those caught up in the immigration detention system, although the government has not allowed access to the centres since 2019 during Pakatan Harapan’s brief period in power.
James Bawi Thang Bik, a representative for The Alliance of Chin Refugees in Malaysia, described the move as “terrible and sad news for the refugee community”.
People from Myanmar account for 85 per cent of the refugees in Malaysia, and ethnic Chins who come from the country’s west are the second-largest group after the mostly Muslim Rohingya.
“If there is no UNHCR, they [refugees] will have no hope, no security, and they can be exploited at any time. Suicide cases might be increased among refugees,” he told Al Jazeera.
The UNHCR is usually the first point of call for new arrivals, who go through a series of interviews and checks with agency staff to assess whether they are in genuine need of protection. Those assessed as refugees are given identity cards from the agency, with the lucky few eventually securing resettlement elsewhere.
But the process of getting a card can take months and resettlement years.
“We are afraid the registration process will take longer than the UNHCR registration process,” said Zafar Ahmad Abdul Ghani, the president of the Myanmar Ethnic Rohingya Human Rights Organization in Malaysia (MEHROM). “Usually, it will take between three to six years for the Rohingya asylum seekers to be recognised as refugees. In some cases, more than six years.”
Zafar himself was the target of a disinformation campaign that forced him into hiding in 2020 after a false Facebook post claimed that he had demanded Malaysian citizenship for Rohingya refugees. Two years later, he and his family are still receiving death threats and harassment.
‘Establishing a national framework’
The UN refugee agency first began working in Malaysia during the Vietnam refugee crisis in the 1970s and has expanded rapidly as a result of conflicts in countries from Myanmar to Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Syria.
Its colonial-era bungalow in Kuala Lumpur has been extended multiple times, and the once-lush garden is covered over with portacabins, parking and a vast covered building where asylum seekers wait for interviews and for claims to be processed.
When asked about the government’s plan to close the offices, Yante Ismail, the Kuala Lumpur-based UNHCR spokesperson, told Al Jazeera that it “welcomes the continued engagement of the Government of Malaysia and ongoing efforts to explore closer cooperation on a variety of issues related to refugee protection”.
She added that the organisation has been in close discussions on a framework of cooperation on managing refugees in the country for years through a government-initiated Joint Task Force, cochaired by the Malaysian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the UN refugee agency.
“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.
But others are sceptical about the government’s ability to handle the work.
“The bottom line is the government doesn’t really have the capacity to manage the refugee situation in the country,” Human Rights Watch’s Robertson said.
“With more than 180,000 UNHCR-recognised refugees, there is a major human rights protection challenge to keep those people safe, and nothing the Malaysian government has done to date indicates that they are up for that challenge.”
Questions over resettlement
The plan to take control of asylum seekers and refugees in Malaysia has also raised questions about the resettlement process under which people are able to start new lives in third countries. The UNHCR is central to the process and works with accepting countries to submit refugees for resettlement. In Malaysia, most refugees are resettled in the United States.
“What I can say is that there will be no more resettlement for refugees in the absence of UNHCR,” said James Bawi Thang Bik. “I think resettlement for refugees is beyond the capacity of a government without UNHCR.”
Robertson notes that most governments require a UNHCR interview to determine the status of a refugee.
“The fact that Malaysia is not a state party of the UN Refugee Convention means that UNHCR’s role is even more important and that closing down the office would be like Malaysia shooting itself in the foot,” he said.
While UNHCR identifies refugees in need of resettlement, it is up to resettlement countries to decide how many refugees they will accept with a quota decided each financial year. The US, which takes in the most people, has said it will accept 125,000 refugees under resettlement after reaching an all-time low during the administration of former President Donald Trump when the quota was cut to 15,000.
Despite the challenging situation in Malaysia, many refugees are hoping that whoever wins power this week will not only reconsider the plan to close the offices of the UN refugee agency but also develop a more comprehensive policy for refugees and asylum seekers, even though the competing coalitions’ manifestos barely touch on the issue.
Officials have periodically talked of giving refugees the right to work, while outgoing Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah has often visited community schools for Rohingya refugees while in office.
Back in 2016, as he faced growing questions over his role in the multibillion-dollar corruption scandal, now-jailed Prime Minister Najib Razak held a mass rally condemning Myanmar’s “genocide” against the Rohingya.
It was not possible for the world to “sit by and watch genocide taking place” he told thousands of people at a Kuala Lumpur stadium, adding that the persecution of the Rohingya was an “insult” to Islam.
The next year, hundreds of thousands more Rohingya were forced to flee as the Myanmar army launched a brutal crackdown in the country’s northwest that is now the subject of a genocide trial at the International Court of Justice.
“We hope the new government will allow the UNHCR to resume their work to assist refugees and asylum seekers and find a durable solution for them,” said MEHROM’s Zafar.