There are over 32 million people living in Malaysia. Among the 3 million non-citizens, approximately 180,000 are refugees and asylum-seekers registered with UNHCR. A large majority come from Myanmar, while the rest originated from Pakistan, Yemen, Afghanistan and other states. Many refugees fought their way to Malaysia to seek a brighter future, as it is a country of economic prosperity compared to their country of origin.
Refugees and Migrants in Malaysia
However, Malaysia is not a signatory of both the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and 1967 Protocol. Since there are no refugee camps in Malaysia, refugees and asylum-seekers are often at risk of being arrested as illegal immigrants, forcing many of them to engage in informal employment, which often involve hard manual labor with low wages. Based on the UNHCR statistics, the number of registered labour among refugees is much lower than their total population. This suggests a lack of access to legal employment opportunities.
Since refugees in Malaysia do not have legal status, they are not entitled to the privileges and public services offered to citizens. Limited education is provided through community-based learning centres which are registered as NGOs, charities and refugee communities. As a result, only 33% of refugee children are receiving a proper education.
Fear and Uncertainty Amidst the COVID-19 Pandemic
As in many countries across the globe, attitudes and policies toward refugees and migrants have hardened in Malaysia as the coronavirus pandemic surges.
- Malaysia deported nearly 400 Myanmar nationals on 12 May 2020.
- Refugees and asylum seekers are now facing job losses, dwindling necessities, the threat of arrest or deportation alongside COVID-19.
- On 30 April 2020, Home Minister Hamzah Zainudin announced that Rohingya have “no status, rights or basis to state demands from the Malaysian government,” which “does not recognise their status as refugees but as illegal immigrants holding UNHCR cards.”
- A spokesperson from the Coalition of Burma Ethnics Malaysia (COBEM), an umbrella group for community groups representing 7 of Myanmar’s ethnic minorities, estimated that 60 to 70 percent of refugees have lost their jobs since the MCO restrictions were imposed.
The UN and other human rights groups warn that fear of arrest will disincentivise marginalised groups to seek treatment, worsening the risk of COVID-19 spreading undetected. Although workplaces are re-opening, the Health Ministry has mandated that employees must first take COVID-19 tests and that worker lists need to be sent to the ministry, thus causing undocumented asylum seekers to fear they will be arrested in this process.
In addition to the health and economic crisis that the refugees face, Al Jazeera reported murder and sexual violence, and hate speeches were additional threats that the Rohingya community are dealing with that is causing fear of physical violence and discrimination.