International Instruments Protecting Refugees’ Rights
The 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention and 1967 Protocol, treaties in international law, are key instruments outlining the rights of refugees, as well as the obligations of member-states in realizing these rights and protecting displaced people. Up to date, 148 nation states have signed one or both of these documents, while numerous nations have yet to ratify them. First, I briefly discuss what it means to be a member-state of the convention. Then, I look at the Malaysian context and how the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) operates in the country.
Signing the convention mentioned above is to accept the UN definition of a refugee: “Someone who is 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”. Member-states are required to safeguard that such individuals are protected and not sent back to their country of origin where they face persecution and serious threats to their lives and rights. Moreover, signatory states are expected to work with UNHCR and to not penalize individuals seeking asylum for committing migration offences. Furthermore, members-states are obliged to provide basic services for refugees, such as ensuring that they have access to the legal system, to primary education, formal employment, and to health care facilities.
Being a Refugee in Malaysia and UNHCR in the Malaysian Context
Malaysia has not signed neither the 1951 Refugee Convention nor the 1967 Protocol, which means that it is not obliged to provide protection and support for refugees, and in fact, to even recognize their refugee status. It would be beneficial for the country to improve its legal framework to address the needs and ensure the realization of the rights of refugees. Currently, refugees can be treated as undocumented migrants, which puts them at risk of being charged for immigration offences and thus, of facing imprisonment, detention or deportation. Refugees do not have access to formal employment, although many do work informally, nor do they have access to formal education. Many do, however, send their kids to school, such as to the school program offered by the Malaysian Social Research Institute, where I am interning, which provides primary and secondary education to refugee children. Displaced people have access to health care facilities, but without a UNHCR card they are at risk of being reported to the police by health care personnel, which is very common. Even those who do hold a UNHCR card have reported threats, harassment and/or abuse by police officials. A UN refugee card also provides a 50% discount for health care services. However, many still find it difficult to access these services, as the fees are often unaffordable and because of language barriers. Asylum seekers, who are waiting for their cases to be processed at UNHCR, do not get the 50% discount. The UNHCR has recently decided to issue one type of identity card to both asylum seekers and registered refugees in order for everyone to receive the 50% discount. However, a number of political figures are opposing this change.
The UNHCR began operations in Malaysia in 1975 when Vietnamese refugees were seeking asylum. For the following two decades, UNHCR supported the Malaysian government to resettle Vietnamese refugees in various countries and to also repatriate many when it was safe to do so. Although Malaysia may not be a member-state, it has been cooperating with the refugee agency to address the needs of asylum seekers in hope of resettling them since UNHCR’s first operations in the country. UNHCR works closely with government organizations, with NGOs and civil society organizations to support displaced people. The Malaysian government sees the country as a transition point and pushes for the resettlement of refugees, as leaders have stated that they are not able to provide long-term support for displaced people. Since there are thousands of individuals and families entering the country to seek asylum, Malaysia continues to allow UNHCR to operate but this could change at any moment because it is not a member-state. The government could decide to close down the Refugee Agency’s offices, just like the Thai government forced UNHCR to suspend services to Myanmese/Burmese asylum seekers in 2004 for a few months. This poses a risk for the agency and the many individuals it serves, which is why organizations and civil society are advocating for the Malaysian government to sign the convention and expand its support of refugees.
Here is the link where you could read the 1951 Refugee Convention and find more information about the UNHCR http://www.unhcr.org/1951-refugee-convention.html