Stuck between a rock – Malaysia and Australia’s Refugee Policy

Mark Chan (Malaysia, MUWCI 2010-2012)

I grew up in an unusual nook in inner-city Kuala Lumpur. Imbi was an ambivalent place, with the leafy parks I used to play in, juxtaposed against the concrete mosaic of white-washed apartments. The neighborhood was suspended, almost stunned to stillness, with the sultry heat during long Malaysian afternoons, whilst occasionally hidden in the shadow of some tall building or another. I’ve watched Imbi change through the years and one recent afternoon, as I climbed up the dark humid stairwell of a flat, I noticed half a dozen Burmese youth laid, as still as death, under the lone orange bulb with needles in hand – heroin.

It frustrates me that the way the Malaysian authorities treats (or rather threatens) refugees have murdered the livelihoods of so many individuals. Recently a new immigration policy between Australia and Malaysia made a severe trade-off between convenience and the safety of refugee. Under that agreement, Australia will send some 800 arriving refugees to Malaysia for “processing” in the words of Australia’s Immigration Minister, Chris Bowen. Australia itself has offered to accept 4000 refugees currently kept in Malaysia, provided Malaysia participates in this factory-line process.

The grave mistake that the Australian Immigration Ministry has committed, perhaps out of sheer convenience, is that the refugees are to be sent to a nation that does not even recognize the existence of refugees! After all, refugee status is not recognized in the Malaysian constitution. How could anyone expect a reasonable treatment from a nation sporting such archaic policies? I hate to sound condescending to the standard (or lack thereof) of the Malaysian immigration and police authorities, but the fact is that as far as Malaysia’s Immigration Department is concerned, refugees do not exist, merely economic migrants.

Newly arrived Myanmarese refugees in Malaysia generally make their way to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) office in Kuala Lumpur to make an official application for refugee status. Depending on the amount of bureaucracy involved, it may be a few years before a refugee is resettled in a third-party nation, such as Australia, New Zealand or Canada. In the meantime, they are not allowed to officially work or own permanent housing. As it is, refugees in Malaysia face either the devil or the deep blue sea: live as Kuala Lumpur’s phantom like population, earning nominal income as laborers while risking the wrath of the police and citizen police groups, or face deportation back to Myanmar, where execution awaits.

The deal puts the UNHCR in Malaysia in an unnerving position. The UNHCR was after all invited to begin operations by the Malaysian government in 1975. Alan Vernon, the UNHCR’s representative in Malaysia supported the deal believing that it could “prove to be a positive turning point for refugee rights”, as the Australian ABC reports. I highly doubt that Vernon is oblivious to the horrendous treatment of refugees in Malaysia, but nevertheless he is somewhat obliged to support the trade-off, lest the UNHCR lose its place in Malaysia.

It is ironic that although Australia possesses some of the most comprehensive human rights laws in any country, it has irresponsibly deflected the influx of new refugees into the hands of the deplorable Malaysian immigration. What worries me, along with a large number of Malaysians, is that Australia will continue to modify its policies to abscond from such a responsibility.Frankly, if Australia wants to show the world that it is actually taking its human rights pledges seriously, then the very least it could do is halt the outsourcing of refugee “processing” to Malaysia. Until then, the work that my peers and I do back home can but make their transit period a slightly more humane, not safe, time.


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