Malaysia, an inter-ethnic country of 28 million people, has a robust economy requiring a large number of migrant workers. Once regarded as one of the worst countries for refugees, Malaysia has taken significant steps to reduce the trafficking, arrest and detention of refugees.
Current Humanitarian Situation
There are approximately 80,000 registered refugees in Malaysia, primarily ethnic Burmese minorities fleeing persecution, such as the Chin, Kachin and Mon. The Rohingya, a stateless Muslim minority from Burma, often risk a perilous sea journey on wooden fishing boats to reach Malaysia. There are also refugees from countries as diverse as Somalia and Sri Lanka.
The population of registered refugees has doubled in the past two years, but UNHCR has not received a commensurate increase in funding to provide services. The process of being registered as a refugee takes about one year due to the growing backlog and inadequate staffing.
Malaysia is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, but has made significant progress in the last two years to improve refugee rights without an official policy change. Community militias, known as RELA, have stopped home raids and detention of refugees and asylum seekers. The police largely recognize and respect UN refugee cards and UNHCR is able to get registered refugees and asylum seekers released from detention centers. National health services are provided to registered refugees and asylum seekers. Detention conditions, however, remain appalling with very limited medical care and a lack of clean water and reports of abuse and corruption by authorities.
Refugees are not permitted to work in Malaysia, despite the high demand, leaving most to survive on menial and unskilled day labor. Malaysia does not permit non-citizens to attend government schools, and NGO or refugee run schools remain sub-standard.
UNHCR has creatively addressed the needs of a diverse and dispersed urban refugee population, but lacks the funding to meet the growing needs. UNHCR partners with refugee-run organizations to register asylum seekers, provide education and share information. UNHCR provides small grants for refugee self-help groups and its NGO partners train refugees volunteers to raise awareness and conduct outreach on domestic violence and mental health in their communities.