KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 7 ― Local human rights groups are questioning Putrajaya's plans for the 3,000 Syrian refugees headed to Malaysia, noting that while this group will get shelter, employment opportunities and even education, over 150,000 others from different nationalities continue to struggle here without legal protection.
Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) executive director Sumitra Visvanathan, who has 16 years of experience with the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), said Malaysia should offer the same deal to refugees already residing here.
“If Malaysia only accords legal protection to these 3,000, then it would beg the question, why this group and not others?” Sumitra told Malay Mail Online.
“Why not the Iraqis? Why not the Palestinians? Why not the Rohingyas? Why not the tens of thousands of refugees who have been living in Malaysia in forced displacement, sometimes for decades, struggling to survive without any form of legal protection?
“Can we say that these 3,000 Syrians are more in need of protection than the Palestinians currently residing illegally in Malaysia? We certainly can't. So why then aren't we protecting them all?” she added.
At the recent UN General Assembly, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak announced that Malaysia would accept 3,000 Syrian refugees to help with the migration crisis amid the civil war in Syria that has forced millions to flee to Europe and other countries.
In October, his deputy Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi was reported in national news agency Bernama as saying that the federal government would provide temporary shelter and jobs for the Syrians that will enter Malaysia in stages over the next three years.
It was reported that these refugees will also get education opportunities for their children, and remain in Malaysia until they are able to return to their home country when the civil war is over.
The first batch of the 3,000 reportedly arrived in Malaysia last month comprising two families of eight.
Sumitra said Malaysia has a humanitarian obligation to protect and to care for refugees, noting that there are migrants who do dangerous, dirty and dull jobs in Malaysia and are at high risk of facing abusive labour conditions.
“For as long as we do not accord these individuals any legal status in Malaysia, they will have no access to labour protection under the law.
"The result is that we will never be able to eradicate forced labour and trafficking,” she said.
Dr Sharuna Verghis, director at refugee NGO Health Equity Initiatives, welcomed the government’s move to take in the 3,000 Syrian refugees, but said it posed a conundrum for Malaysia.
Like Sumitra, she noted that Malaysia is already home to some 150,000 refugees, all of whom have been struggling with legal issues.
“What about the 150,000 or more refugees already in the country who lack formal rights to work, education and struggle to access health care? What about other Syrian refugees already in the country?” Sharuna told Malay Mail Online.
“We hope that the move to bring in Syrian refugees will strengthen Malaysia's commitment to share responsibility for the humanitarian crises around us and recognise other refugees in the country,” she added.
Sharuna urged Malaysia to ratify the UN Refugee Convention and to allow refugees to work.
“By allowing them to work, refugees can officially contribute to the development of the country, pay taxes, pay their bills and sustain themselves,” she said.
The Migration Working Group (MWG), which is a network of civil society groups and people who advocate for the rights of refugees and migrants, said Putrajaya’s decision to classify the 3,000 Syrian refugees as migrants seemed to be a “work around” the system, as opposed to a comprehensive policy on the refugee situation in Malaysia.
“An important difference between migrant workers and refugees is that the latter cannot be returned home because their life or liberty is threatened. Until things change in Syria, they need to be protected and given an opportunity to start a new life in Malaysia, and this means giving them the right to work, to have education, and to have health care,” MWG coordinators Jessica Low and Alice Nah told Malay Mail Online.
Asylum Access Malaysia director Deepa Nambiar said the 3,000 Syrians should be considered asylum-seekers and not migrants, pending the determination of their refugee status with UNHCR.
“The right to seek asylum is a fundamental human right and is recognised in Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 16 of the Asean Human Rights Declaration, both of which Malaysia is a member,” Deepa told Malay Mail Online.
According to the UNHCR, there are over 153,000 refugees and asylum-seekers registered with the UN agency in Malaysia as of the end of September 2015.
The majority are from Myanmar, with most comprising the Rohingya, while the rest are from Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, Iraq, Iran and Palestine, among others.