My second blog post discusses the UNHCR’s system of processing and admitting refugees. It also discusses some interactions between asylum-seekers, the UNHCR and the Malaysian state. Thanks for reading! Any feedback and advice would be the most welcome.

The 1951 UN Convention on Refugees established the definition of a “refugee” as well as the requirements of a signatory state to protect those fitting this definition. The 1967 Protocol then extended the definition to refugees those that come from outside of Europe and without any temporal limitations. Previously, states had the option to recognize refugees only as those from Europe and prior to January 1, 1951. Due to Malaysia’s position as a non-signatory of either mandate, they have no obligation to recognize refugees and provide support or protection to displaced individuals. For this reason, external and non-governmental actors are necessary in order for refugees and asylum-seekers to have access to support and protection. Due to their government-established illegal status, this protection includes that from the state’s ability to detain or deport these individuals.

Before having access to these protections, individuals must be recognized as refugees by the UNHCR. To do this, they must go through the Refugee Status Determination (RSD) process (a process which has changed regularly since I began my placement at MSRI). This might take up to one year and is described by the UNHCR as a basic interview to determine the eligibility of an individual to claim refugee status. In this interview, interviewees must provide biological information (including any and all forms of identification documents), statements on how and why they left their country and any UNHCR issued documents.

The following interview is a Vulnerability/Risk Assessment. It determines the applicant’s eligibility to access UNHCR services and what vulnerabilities an individual or family may have. This assesses the Best Interest of the Child (BID), the Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV) vulnerabilities and medical vulnerabilities. Those determined by the assessment to be vulnerable will receive the aforementioned RSD interview. At this point, they are either recognized as a refugee or again risk being rejected. Rejection at the RSD level can be appealed. If an individual is recognized as a refugee they have access to the Resettlement Process. Resettlement entails moving to a third country where resettled individuals should have access to rights, legal employment and education. As mentioned, getting to this point may take years. On top of this, the Resettlement Assessment process alone could take anywhere from a couple months to a couple more years.

Although individuals may make it into the Resettlement Process, “of the 14.4 million refugees of concern to UNHCR around the world, less than one per cent is submitted for resettlement,” ( These submissions are then assessed by the countries of relocation themselves. In 2014, 73,000 of the 103,890 submitted refugees were successfully relocated. Protection, refugee status, and resettlement opportunities for individuals becomes a system of ever-decreasing bottlenecks reliant on third-party observers and their assessments of the subjective experiences of applicants. While Malaysia as a transit country resettled the highest number of individuals in 2014 (about 10,000), as the size of the bottlenecks narrow, with less and less individuals being recognized as eligible for the subsequent step, more end up trapped in a legal limbo. Despite having some limited protections from the UNHCR, this position still poses the risk of detainment and issues of unemployment and a lack of access to education remains.

By issuing UNHCR cards to refugee and asylum-seekers, the UNHCR attempts to validate these individuals’ lives in Malaysia. Although it removes some pressure from the state itself to address the constant influx of asylum-seekers to the country, the state criticizes the UNHCR’s agency within the state. On August 15th of this year, Malaysia’s Minister of Home and Immigration insisted that the UNHCR stop issuing refugee status cards. In particular, Shahidan Kassim emphasizes on the UNHCR’s lack of diplomatic status in Malaysia, saying the organization is “doing it wrong by issuing the cards without informing the Home and Immigration Department.” He insists that “foreigners wanting to apply for refugee status” go through the country’s legal procedures. These are evidently convoluted statements because, as has been mentioned and as Kassim himself recognizes, Malaysia remains a non-signatory of the UN refugee mandates. Additionally, he adds that those breaking the law should be deported immediately. Through this speech, Kassim simultaneously suggests that there are legal means for refugees to stay in Malaysia, yet acknowledges that, in reality, there are not.

In this way, not only are the UNHCR’s systems of resettling refugees complicated and long-winded, in Malaysia, the bottlenecking effects receive constant pressure from the state. People are being pushed out, while the available exit is constantly narrowing. The lack of resettling countries, their low acceptance rates of refugees, along with a lack of acceptance in the society’s of transit countries and the inability to return to countries of origin, places the lives of individuals in limited spaces without options. Kassim’s speech frames the discussion of refugees in such a way that it is those seeking refuge and the UNHCR which are infringing on legal lines. While this is debatably true, when we compartmentalize law to their individual states, it disables global development and is ineffective in its purpose.

Humans are not compartmentalized to their individual states. Laws are allegedly created to protect people, as globalization and migration (forced and voluntary) continue to expand, states and laws must adapt to this. Legality and state borders as intangible man-made structures have the ability to be flexible. For this reason people should and can be protected within their migration. At the very least, since mass-migration and human displacement have already occurred, attempting to maintain laws which try to undo this is neither beneficial nor reasonable. The same is true of resettlement countries. Continuing to deny access to humans does not prevent the movements or influxes of refugees and migrants from occurring. It just incapacitates livelihoods in an awkward, bottleneck-shaped world.

(This image is typically used to explain a phenomenon of genetics and gene variation, but it demonstrates the point here alright too.)