By Nina Muslim | Bernama

The protests and breakout at the temporary immigration detention centre in Sungai Bakap, Penang, last week have renewed calls for a legal framework and policy to deal with refugees, especially Rohingyas.

Six Rohingya asylum-seekers, including two children, were killed while trying to cross a highway after fleeing the detention centre on April 20. Police said they were among the 528 detainees who broke out after a “riot”. As of April 28, almost all have been found with 61 still at large.

Activists have called for an investigation into the reasons for the breakout, claiming reports of poor living conditions for detainees exacerbated by overcrowding. The government has sought to ease the overcrowding by repurposing former National Service camps as immigration detention centres, but Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (SUHAKAM) commissioners reported seeing too many people in the space they were held in.

As of 2020, the government reported there were 15,626 inmates in immigration depots, which were only supposed to house 12,530. A total of 208 deaths were reported in the depots between 2018 and Feb 15, 2022. Most of the deaths were caused by diseases, including tuberculosis, pneumonia, dengue, diabetes, and COVID-19. Among the dangers of overcrowding in detention centres is the spread of diseases.

Tan Sri Syed Hamid Albar

Malaysian Advisory Group on Myanmar chair Tan Sri Syed Hamid Albar told Bernama the Sungai Bakap incident highlighted the need to have a comprehensive legal framework to deal with the decades-old issue of refugees.

“Malaysia has a lot of refugees from different countries, but there is no refugee policy. It’s not as simple and straightforward (that) by declaring we do not recognise anybody without documents, they are all illegals,” he said.

According to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR), there are some 181,000 refugees and asylum-seekers in Malaysia, most of whom are Rohingyas from Myanmar.

Malaysia does not officially recognise refugees as it is not party to the 1951 Convention on Refugees. As such, the prevailing treatment of asylum-seekers is to detain them as undocumented migrants, and many are arrested and detained for years. Those who have received their UNHCR cards are usually left alone until they can be resettled in a third country.

Former SUHAKAM commissioner Jerald Joseph told Bernama he had visited some of the Sungai Bakap detainees when they were held in the immigration detention depot in Langkawi.

“They were hoping they could be let out but no. After over two years, they are still detained without a clear policy direction on what to do with them,” he said.

The prolonged detention is by design rather than accident, as Home Minister Datuk Seri Hamzah Zainuddin recently said that the government did it to serve as a warning to other migrants against entering Malaysia illegally.

Faced with criticism by human rights agencies at home and abroad for the breakout and treatment of the Rohingya detainees, Hamzah also lashed out, telling the Rohingyas to go back to Myanmar if they are unhappy with their treatment in Malaysia.

Some Malaysians agree with Hamzah’s points, saying those criticising Malaysia for the breakout should consider how kind the country has been to refugees by being willing to provide them with food and shelter. Several questioned why the refugees, especially the Rohingyas, could not be sent back.  

No way home

The answer to the question is complicated. Refugees are those fleeing persecution, violence, torture, and death in their home country. 

In general, countries cannot simply send refugees or asylum-seekers back without violating international law in the process. Under international law, once they have managed to enter a country, refugees cannot be sent home where they will be in danger of losing their life or freedom.

Called the principle of non-refoulement, it is recognised as “customary international law, which is binding for all states, regardless of whether or not they have signed the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees”, the UNHCR told Bernama. 

On top of it, Rohingya refugees are different from other refugees. 

Malaysia has a long history of playing host to refugees and in the past, the country has been very welcoming to refugees of the Vietnam War and Bosnian War, to mention a few. However, Rohingya refugees are also stateless people, unless the international community can convince Myanmar – who call the Rohingyas illegal immigrants although their families have lived in Myanmar for hundreds of years – to recognise and accept them as citizens.

“(The Rohingyas) can’t be deported to Myanmar because Myanmar doesn’t recognise them. And they can’t be sent back to Cox’s Bazaar (a refugee camp in Bangladesh) because they are not nationals of Bangladesh. There’s no such thing as deporting someone to a refugee camp,” said Joseph.

This means the Rohingyas, unlike the Vietnamese, the Bosnians, and others who returned to their home country once there was peace, are likely to be in Malaysia for the long haul. Based on social media posts and rhetoric from some officials, the resentment among many Malaysians seems to stem from this and from the fact that the number of Rohingya refugees is growing as their country remains troubled.

Edmund Bon

Malaysia has sought to address the Rohingya refugee crisis at the regional and international levels. 

“The ideal thing is to have an agreement among Southeast Asian nations on who takes who and how to do verification with the UNHCR. All of those should be formalised,” said Edmund Bon, the former Malaysian representative to ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights.

He added that efforts to find a resolution among ASEAN member states on the refugee crisis have not succeeded. 

As such, experts said the best way to solve the Rohingya issue in Malaysia is to find a third country for them to resettle in. But demand is high while slots are few.

The other choice is more practical but is also likely to be less popular: integration.


The government has complained it costs money to feed and shelter refugees and asylum-seekers. Many Malaysians resent the amount of funds being used to house and feed the refugees, thinking the money can be better utilised to help citizens recover from the pandemic-related economic downturn. Refugees and asylum-seekers do not want to remain in detention and instead want to earn a living.

So why not create a policy that recognises the refugees’ presence in this country so that they can be integrated into Malaysian society and allowed to work formally, thus filling in the jobs that locals do not want to do, activists and politicians suggest.

Rather than hiring foreign workers to do non-skilled work such as cleaning ditches and working in wet markets, activists said it would be better to get Rohingya refugees to do such work.

“Malaysia is so desperate for workers. And here you have a ready crowd, who are here, you know them, the (holders) of UNHCR cards are known to the government. You can easily utilise them as economic functionaries also while they are waiting for their country to get better,” said Joseph.

For years, the government has been considering allowing refugees to work, beginning with a pilot project that saw refugees being employed in the manufacturing and agricultural sectors in 2016. Human Resources Minister Datuk Seri M. Saravanan recently said they were doing an in-depth study to avoid being inundated by refugees seeking work in Malaysia.

Some Malaysians fear allowing refugees to work means they will be taking jobs from locals or they will be getting all the benefits without paying taxes. Activists said such fears were unfounded.

For one thing, the jobs the refugees would be taking up would be low-paid jobs that locals do not want. Another is that workers who make too little to pay taxes still contribute to the economy.

“The fact that you work even though you don’t pay taxes, it contributes to the generation of economic activities,” said Syed Hamid.

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