In Malaysia, we often hear anecdotal accounts of refugees facing harassment from police or immigration authorities and being subjected to demands for bribes under the threat of arrest. Shockingly, law enforcement officials had even torn up or destroyed their United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) cards, which serve as crucial identification and protection documents. Now, findings from recent research have confirmed the accounts.

On 25 May 2023, two research reports — Impact of Prolonged Immigration Detention on Rohingya Families and Communities in Malaysia and Understanding the Current and Potential Contribution of Rohingya Refugees to the Malaysian Economy — were released. They shed light on the harsh realities that the vulnerable refugees face and expose the unjust practices that perpetuate their suffering, even as they came here to seek safety.

I participated in a panel discussion during the launch of the reports, hosted by the All-Party Parliamentary Group Malaysia (APPGM) – Policy on Refugees in Malaysia. I shared three observations:

1. The inhumane treatment of refugees is unacceptable, particularly for a country member of the Human Rights Council. The government must prioritise immediate action on four crucial issues concerning refugees:

(a) Grant refugees the right to work.

(b) Reduce the cost of medical healthcare for refugees.

(c) Eliminate the requirement for medical personnel to report undocumented individuals seeking treatment.

(d) Give refugee children the right to formal education in official public schools.

2. The government must stop detaining refugees indefinitely. Period.

Section 34 of the Immigration Act 1959/63 only allows the Director General of Immigration to detain a person for such period as may be necessary for the purpose of making arrangements for his or her removal. The detention should be temporary and solely to make arrangements for their removal. This means that indefinite detention is prohibited and cannot be a form of punishment for refugees.

For stateless individuals like the Rohingyas, returning them to their home country, Myanmar, is not viable. In the case of other refugees, the duration of detention should be aligned with the intended purpose. 

We have heard of detainees, including children, languishing in detention centres for months and years. Such practices breach Malaysian and international human rights laws and may amount to torture, or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.

The government should be open with statistics on the length of detention of each detainee in our immigration centres and foster transparency. Legal challenges should be pursued as necessary to release unlawfully detained refugees.

3. Another problematic issue highlighted in the reports is the alarming rise of xenophobia, discrimination, and hate towards refugees. But what do we expect when racist statements by politicians and influential leaders in Malaysia have become commonplace in Malaysia’s public discourse? Daily, we read of “hate” speeches in the media.

Even among Malaysians, existing prejudices and biases based on race and religion have been exploited by our leaders for political gain, perpetuating an environment of hate and intolerance of differences. Racism has become normalised. It is, therefore, unsurprising that many Malaysians perceive refugees as the “Other” – it is only a short leap from “Other-ing” among ourselves to “Other-ing” others from us.

If we are to progress as a nation, we cannot continue to be a society that allows the most vulnerable among us to be bullied.