A boatful of hope for Rohingya refugees in Malaysia

Often called the most friendless people in the world, the recent interception of 56 Rohingya refugees on a boat off the island of Langkawi is the latest entry in their never-ending saga. Forced out of their homes in Rakhine State, Myanmar under a slow genocide, their continued persecution is shameful – not only for the government of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, but also for countries that continue to disregard their obligations under international law to protect refugees.

The Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency and the Royal Malaysian Navy deserve to be commended for their actions in this instance for providing food, water and other humanitarian assistance to this boatload of refugees who were mostly weak, malnourished and ill after travelling for 23 days by sea from Rakhine. The refugees were handed over to the immigration authorities to be processed while medical assistance was provided by the Malaysian Relief Agency. They are currently being detained at the Belantik Immigration Depot in Kedah but will eventually be able to access UNHCR for their refugee status to be determined. Lest we forget, however, the last time refugees appeared near our shores, we were not so welcoming.

Needing rhetoric to match change in policy

Merely three short years ago, when it became clear that there was a mass influx of Rohingya refugees fleeing by sea to neighbouring Southeast Asian countries, the Malaysian and Thai governments sealed their borders. In some cases, the authorities even towed rickety boats laden with refugees back to the open seas and leaving thousands of them stranded, many of whom perished, never to be seen again. Intense international pressure finally forced Putrajaya and Bangkok to reconsider, even as Indonesian fishermen on the island of Sumatra rescued hundreds from sinking boats and bringing them ashore, and in the process showing to the world how to treat refugees in a more humane manner.

Towards the end of 2016, state-sponsored violence struck Rakhine yet again, and another wave of refugees set out to seek safe haven in other countries. In a rare show of public disagreement, Prime Minister Najib Razak took to the stage during a protest rally to slam Suu Kyi’s government for failing to protect the Rohingya, breaking the longstanding ASEAN principle of non-interference. In the months since, he has come to tout himself as their champion, demanding Myanmar’s accountability and for other countries to take a stand against the genocide.

Najib’s chest-beating rhetoric, however, has yet to translate to tangible improvements on the ground. Malaysia’s track record of affording basic rights and protection towards refugees and asylum seekers is dismal. Without a coherent refugee policy, the day-to-day lives of asylum seekers and refugees remain precarious, as there is little security over their ability to move around and work legally without fear of being harassed by law enforcement personnel.

As refugees are not formally recognised and in the absence of a legal framework to protect them, they are often treated as undocumented migrants. Refugees are often subject to arbitrary arrest, leading to extortion and even serious mistreatment and abuse by the police and immigration authorities if they are detained further. Only registered asylum seekers and refugees with UNHCR documents have a measure of security, but recognition of these documents is inconsistent and can still lead to serious repercussions on the ground.

Access to public healthcare is a double-edged sword for migrants and refugees alike. Charged exorbitant prices under foreigners’ rates, they are often unable to afford treatment or medication. Further, government healthcare providers are obliged to report ‘illegal immigrants’ seeking healthcare services to the police and immigration authorities – leading to many refugees and migrants eschewing healthcare out of fear of being arrested.

If refugees have the misfortune of being arrested and sent to detention centres, they will be kept with other undocumented migrants in fetid, unsanitary and overcrowded conditions. Necessities such as adequate food, clean drinking water and medical care are a luxury, and inmates are sometimes even forced to drink toilet water. Under such poor conditions and close quarters, diseases spread rapidly. If the detainees dare to complain, they are subject to beatings.

Unsurprisingly, death while in custody is not uncommon and rarely raises an eyebrow, whether due to disease, neglect or torture. According to the Home Ministry, 161 people died in immigration detention centres between 2014 – 2016 due to ‘various diseases’. This number must be taken as the very minimum, while the stated causes of death must also be questioned: whether these ‘various diseases’ were preventable or treatable if given proper and timely medical attention, or if they were in fact something altogether more sinister – cover-ups of neglect or torture leading to death.

The situation for children and women in detention is no better. Child detainees are placed in adult facilities by gender, and boys aged 12 and above are separated from female family members and kept with other unrelated men. Pregnant and lactating women are also often detained and denied access to the healthcare and services necessary for their specific conditions.

The way forward

Given Malaysia’s proximity to Myanmar and the fact that the Rohingya’s persecution will not be resolved anytime soon, the Malaysian government should take the first step by acceding to the Refugee Convention. The adoption of international standards for refugees will go a long way in providing a basic framework for the authorities to coordinate and ensure that refugee rights are protected, not just on a case by case basis, but consistently.

Malaysia should enhance cooperation with UNHCR to facilitate documentation with the right to work that is wholly recognised so that there are no issues of arbitrary arrest or extortion due to their uncertain status in law.

The detention conditions in all detention centres must be improved immediately. All detainees must receive adequate amount of food, water, shelter and medical attention. Physical abuse or torture of any kind cannot be tolerated.

Further, as a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, Malaysia must respect its international obligations and work towards fulfilling them, in particular by not detaining children and women, especially those with specific needs (i.e. pregnant women).

Malaysia’s track record when dealing with refugees and asylum seekers has been inadequate despite grudgingly hosting not insignificant numbers of Rohingya and other refugees over the past few decades. Nevertheless, there is no reason the current state of affairs must persist. In the last year, there have been some encouraging signs – for example, Home Minister Zahid Hamidi visiting Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, providing humanitarian assistance, and making several appeals to the international community including China to help resolve the situation in Myanmar.

As this latest boatload of Rohingya has discovered, there is a flicker of possibility that Malaysia could now be friendlier towards them than ever before.


By Eric Paulsen, Executive Director of Lawyers for Liberty