AIESEC in Sunway: Refugee Rights Panel Discussion

Disclaimer: 

The following article discusses topics of a sensitive nature, such as refugee rights and labour exploitation, which may be upsetting and/or controversial to some readers. Hence, reader discretion is advised. The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the article belong solely to the author and do not reflect Sunway University and Sunway College’s values. Furthermore, Sunway Echo Media is not affiliated with Refugee Academy in any way and bears no responsibility for any donations made via the link provided in the article below.

As of 2017, at least 600 refugees have died in detention centres. Many more have died since then, but a specific number remains unclear due to the government’s lack of transparency. At least 182000 refugees are being exploited. 20% of Malaysia’s labour force is being taken advantage of. On 20th August, Empowering Equalities by AIESEC in Sunway held a live panel discussion on refugee rights mainly focusing on detention centres and labour exploitation. 

This panel discussion’s aim is to raise awareness amongst the public on the plight and human rights violation of refugees in the immigration detention centres. This discussion is also meant to spread awareness of the refugees’ work rights violations, exploitation, and the importance of having a legal framework for protection.

Meet the Panellists

The first panellist was Mr. Hasan Al -Akraa. Not only is he the founder and director of Al-Hasan Volunteer and Refugee Emergency Fund, but is also  -the  Community Leadership and Engagement Officer at Asylum Access Malaysia. The Syrian refugee and advocate completed his Bachelor’s degree in Education at the University of Nottingham Malaysia. 

Mr. Azril M.Amin is the founder and director of Centre for Human Rights Research and Advocacy (CENTHRA). He is also a former special officer to the former prime minister and has more than 18 years of experience as a legal practitioner and non-governmental organisation leader. 

Why are Refugees Detained?

Malaysia’s Immigration Act states that any individual entering the country without a permit can be detained. There are no exceptions. All stateless people, undocumented migrants, refugees and asylum seekers are subject to the same penalties. 

Refugees are usually arrested for working without a permit. Refugees do not receive any support or financial aid, so must work in order to survive. There are no refugee camps in Malaysia, so refugees have to work to pay off rent, keep a roof over their head to support their family.

When the government announced that refugees can be part of the vaccination programme for COVID 19, A number of refugees did not register themselves for vaccination, for fear of being detained. In many situations where refugees have to interact with government authorities, such as through health procedures or reporting violence, their rights go overlooked as authorities prioritise “checking” their documentation status.

Living Standards in Detention Centres

Mr Hasan shared his experience of being detained when he was 14 years old. He spent 9 days in the detention centre while his brother stayed there for 2 months. The experience he had was unimaginable and tremendously awful. The psychological impact detention centres had on refugees was traumatising, be it children or adults. The cramped and unsanitary conditions in detention centres, alongside various forms of punishment and inhumane treatment, even torture and abuse occur in the closed, isolated institution. 

Living in foetid and overcrowded cells, inmates are severely deprived of basic necessities such as food, water and medical care. According to Mr Hasan, they had to sleep on the ground with no blanket or pillow, drink water from the toilet and the food given is not enough to feed a cat, much less for a human. Refugees need to learn Malay in order to communicate in the centre. The inhumane condition has led to inmates being depressed and suicidal. Poor conditions such as these result in serious long-term illness, which in some cases has been fatal. 

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) once had access to detention centres for case management and case assessment, to register and release the detainees. However, the negative treatment of refugees at these centres became so severe that in 2019, UNHCR was banned from visiting. As of 2022, more than 1400 minors have been arrested. The PTSD that these minors suffer from these unbearable conditions takes decades to heal from. 

According to Mr Hasan, immigration raids in Malaysia doesn’t contribute to solving the issues that come with undocumented immigration but only fosters fear, intimidate refugees and affect their freedom of movement. Immigration raids occur regularly, usually targeting factories and restaurants but recently, the government has started to raid refugee residences, regardless of whether they have UNHCR cards or not. Even though the validity of UNHCR cards can be verified on the spot through the UNHCR Verify Plus App it has been always assumed that the refugee’s UNHCR card is fake and is forged.

What happens if Malaysia Signed the 1951 Refugee Convention?

The 1951 Refugee Convention is the key legal document that defines the term ‘refugee’ and outlines the rights of refugees, as well as the legal obligation of States to protect them. Malaysia is now on the Human Rights Council for the term 2022 and 2024 and has given its commitment to improve the conditions and move towards ratifying the 1951 Refugee Convention. 

Mr Azril noted that despite Malaysia not signing the convention, Malaysia is still subject to International Customary Law. There must still be progressive improvisation in terms of protection for refugees. We should push the government to adopt a legal framework to make sure to follow standards procedures and human-rights affirming protocols that protect refugees in terms of their basic rights such as education, health and rights to work. If refugees are denied access to education, they are likely to become illiterate and may  face difficulties and financial constraints to make ends meet, keep a roof over their head, and feed their families. . Even if they were already educated before their arrival in Malaysia, they would still not be allowed to work or make any form of livelihood.  When accessing healthcare, despite the 50% discount offered to refugees with UNHCR Cards at any government hospital, the bill remains very expensive, sometimes reaching up to RM4,000 just to be admitted.

Signing the 1961 Convention will allow Malaysia to have international funds and support, which may or may not be helpful, depending on the government’s agenda. Mr Hasan also added, the government should implement policies in order for refugees to be granted basic rights if Malaysia does not want to sign the convention. For example, Lebanon did not ratify the convention and the number of refugees in Lebanon is higher than the number in Malaysia, the government still granted them some rights. Refugee children  are given the opportunity to go to school. Lebanese children attend the morning session while Syrian refugee children attend the afternoon session. 

Labour Exploitation 

There is very little progress in preventing exploitation. Refugees are frequently exploited, abused and not paid by employers. Forms of exploitation include wage exploitation, smuggling, beggar’s syndicate and local authority exploitation. They do not report exploitation of any kind because they are scared of being arrested and detained. When reports are being made, their documentation becomes the priority.

Refugees are humans, many of whom are already skilled. If given the right opportunities, proper training and proper orientation, they will be able to do so much more, and even contribute to Malaysia’s economy. Locals do not like the 3D job, which is dirty, dangerous and difficult, but refugees are willing to do these jobs. By putting them in dangerous sectors, governments should at least provide them a form of insurance. If education is not provided to the refugees, at the very least, work opportunities and other rights should be given. However, the right to work, which is a basic human right, should not be given just to “educated” refugees. The question will then be, does a refugee with no education background have no right to work and survive? 

If all refugees were to leave Malaysia and go back to their home countries, the economy would be badly damaged. Malaysia would lose a significant amount of cheap labour. Refugees have the potential to contribute 3 billion to the Malaysian economy. Their efforts help create jobs, boost innovation and economic growth. 

Closing

The panel discussion ended with a giveaway, where the winner got a RM20 Grab voucher, and a photo session with the panellists. 

To support the refugee community in Malaysia, you can donate to Refugee Academy, Klang here. Refugee Academy is a school for Rohingya refugees. Your donations will help Malaysia become a more more inclusive place; education can pull people out of poverty. Donations will be open until the 7th of October 2022 (Friday).

Written by: Isabel 

Edited by: Poorani

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