Is Malaysia taking Syrian refugees or migrants? – Aslam Abd Jalil


Source: The Malaysian Insider


Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak made a very bold statement about taking Syrian refugees as part of Malaysia’s commitment to mitigate the world refugee crisis.

At the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly last October, he stated that Malaysia would do its share, and open its doors to 3,000 Syrian refugees over the next three years.

The first batch of two families of eight Syrian refugees arrived in Malaysia two months later.

Najib’s wife, Datin Seri Rosmah Mansor, followed suit in helping the Syrian refugee children and women in Lebanon and Jordan, donating RM2.5 million on behalf of Global Children’s Wellbeing Fund (GCWF) and Welfare Association of the Wives of Ministers and Deputy Ministers (Bakti) this week.

Taking in Syrian refugees is a good gesture as it would give some form of pressure to the government to improve its treatment to the other existing 156,340 registered asylum-seekers and refugees with UNHCR, including 1, 310 Syrians as of end December 2015.

However, Datuk Nur Jazlan Mohamed, the deputy home minister, mentioned recently that the 3,000 incoming Syrian refugees are treated as migrants. This was his response to the demand by local NGOs about better treatment to other thousands of refugees living in Malaysia who over 92% come from Myanmar.

Refugees or migrants?

Malaysia is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol and it does not have an administrative and legislative framework to handle refugees.

Under the Malaysian law, there is no provision made for asylum-seekers and refugees. Hence, they are all considered as migrants, most being illegal or Pati (Pendatang Asing Tanpa Izin).

So, technically the Syrian refugees will be treated as migrants based on current law when they enter Malaysia. This is a confusing and very contradictory policy.

The Syrian refugees are taken into Malaysia on the basis of their “refugee status” but once they enter Malaysia, their status suddenly changes to “migrants” and automatically they become the same like other migrants who come here for economic reasons!

Are refugees and migrants the same? No, they are not, because:

i. Refugees and migrants are defined and treated differently under international law.

Asylum-seekers and refugees are those who flee persecution and seek refuge in another country. Asylum-seekers will undergo Refugee Status Determination (RSD) process by UNHCR in the case of Malaysia as Malaysia does not have its own mechanism in doing so.

RSD involves thorough background checks. Only asylum-seekers who have genuine evidence of persecution are given refugee status and become refugees.

On the contrary, migrants are those who migrate to other countries in search of better opportunities. Migrants are mobile as they can come and leave the host countries whenever they wish to.

Under international law, the refugees should be given necessary protection. Malaysia is bound to follow the non-refoulment principle.

Deporting the refugees to where they flee from persecution is absolutely breaching international laws.

ii. Refugees and migrants have different reasons for coming to Malaysia.

As migrants can possibly migrate to anywhere they wish, refugees are forced to flee their home countries.

They are forced to as no one wants to leave their home countries regardless how bad the countries are unless they fear for their safety. Many of the refugees have to leave their family members and friends behind. The possibility of reuniting with their families depends on their luck.

Migrants, however, have no urgent need to come to Malaysia other than searching for better opportunities.

iii. Refugees and migrants have different needs and need different assistance.

Refugees flee war zones and threats. The horrific experiences they encountered that forced them to flee means they live in fear and this leads to mental health issues including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

According to Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) or Doctors Without Borders in a report entitled “We are worth nothing-Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Malaysia”, of the 100 refugees MSF interviewed in Malaysia, 77 felt constant fear and worry, 82 suffered sleepless nights and 69 had feelings of isolation while 56 people had experienced depression and 20% had suicidal thoughts.

All of these problems stem from the difficulties associated with obtaining documents, the ongoing lack of security and very poor living conditions.

Some migrants too may experience abuse and exploitation. However, the refugees are more likely to suffer from this situation given that their lives are in danger.

Does the ‘refugee’ term matter?

I strongly believe that classifying refugees as migrants is very misleading. That is why Al Jazeera chose to use the term “refugees” instead of “migrants” when covering the Mediterranean refugee crisis .

The umbrella term “migrant” is no longer suitable to describe the horror unfolding in the Syrian crisis. The term undermines the unique rights for refugees as migrants are often seen as nuisance by the locals.

Declarations and conventions have specified the rights of refugees in different ways.

Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution”.

Article 16 of Asean Declaration of Human Rights says “Every person has the right to seek and receive asylum in another state in accordance with the laws of such State and applicable international agreements”.

The UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees outlines clearly:

1. Who refugees are
2. What the refugees’ needs are
3. What the states’ obligations to the refugees are.

Clearly, the existence of the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol and UNHCR which operates in 125 countries show the crucial needs to handle the refugees.

Refusing to recognise the refugees as “refugees” justifies a lesser form of treatment.

By labeling the refugees as “migrants”, it instills a negative perception that the refugees are coming into Malaysia solely because they want to utilise the abundance of resources here at the expense of local population. This can induce the feeling of insecurity among the locals and eventually lead to xenophobia.

I think that there are several issues that arise:

1. Nur Jazlan’s claim that UNHCR only declare people as “refugees” if they “don’t have passports and [are] stateless” is totally wrong. Those who have citizenship and hold passports too can become refugees as long as they meet the refugee criteria.

Some of the refugees who are already in Malaysia may not hold passports or are stateless because the authorities in the home country especially Myanmar discriminate them.

But, that does not mean that only “undocumented” refugees are considered as refugees while people with passports cannot become refugees and be issued with UNHCR refugee/asylum-seeker cards.

2. The Malaysian government says it prefers semi-skilled and skilled Syrians only. Is this a refugee scheme or a migrant labour scheme? The government has to realise that refugees come from all different educational backgrounds and social class.

The RSD process does not discriminate asylum seekers based on their education level, but only considers whether they have well-founded fear of persecution or not.

After all, education or skill levels do not determine what kind of protection or how much protection should be given to the refugees.

It just so happens that the educated ones are more aware of their rights and they are more able to demand their rights as refugees.

3. If the gesture of PM is with noble intention to mitigate the global refugee crisis, the existing refugees in Malaysia should get the same rights like the incoming 3,000 Syrian refugees.

The government announced that the 3,000 Syrian refugees would get iKad and would be allowed to work and access education.

What about the other non-Syrian refugees who also desperately need to work and access education?

If this is the case, the world community will interpret that this “gesture” is only done solely for Malaysia’s political mileage and Malaysia is not sincere to help the needy refugees.


The taking of 3,000 Syrian “refugees” (or migrants?) is a noble gesture in helping mitigate the crisis. But it can be hypocritical if it becomes a labour migrant scheme and the existing refugees are not given the same rights like the 3,000 (semi-skilled and skilled) Syrian “refugees” (or migrants?).

It is time the government had a proper administrative and legislative framework to handle the asylum-seekers and refugees. – February 5, 2016.

* Aslam Abdul Jalil is pursuing Masters at the International Institute of Public Policy and Management, Universiti Malaya.