Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
f. Protection of Refugees
The government generally did not impede organizations providing protection and assistance to migrants, refugees, and stateless persons, most of whom lived intermingled with the general public. The government cooperated to a limited extent with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees and asylum seekers. As there is no legal framework for dealing with refugees and asylum seekers in the country, UNHCR conducted all activities related to protection, including registration and status determination.
Abuse of Migrants and Refugees, and Stateless Persons: As of August 31, there were 178,140 refugees and asylum seekers registered with UNHCR in the country, of whom 153,430 were from Burma. Of those from Burma, 101,530 were Rohingyas. There were some 24,700 refugees and asylum seekers from 50 countries, including Pakistanis, Yemenis, Syrians, Somalis, Afghans, Sri Lankans, Iraqis, Palestinians, and others. There were some 46,500 children younger than age 18.
Most migrants, refugees, and stateless persons lived in private accommodations and survived on support from UNHCR, NGOs, community-based organizations, refugee support networks, or illegal or informal labor. The government held thousands of individuals in immigration detention centers and other facilities. Access to those in detention centers was often significantly limited.
Between April and July, with the rise in public hostility toward migrant foreigners, particularly Rohingyas, over fears they were a burden on public resources and a COVID-19 vector, the government arrested undocumented migrant workers, including children, and held thousands in confined and congested cells at immigration detention centers and other facilities. Access to those in detention centers was often significantly limited. NGOs called the crackdown an “appalling violation of human rights” and noted the mass detention could further spread COVID-19 cases within detention facilities, stressing also that the roundups could discourage many from coming forward voluntarily for testing or treatment. On May 27, the NGO Lawyers for Liberty stated: “Undocumented migrants are not ‘acceptable casualties’ of the COVID-19 pandemic.” In February, UNHCR said that since August 2019, authorities had disallowed visits by its staff to detention centers to meet refugees and asylum seekers, determine those in need of international protection, and advocate for their release.
NGOs and international organizations involved with these populations made credible allegations of overcrowding, inadequate food and clothing, lack of regular access to clean water, poor medical care, improper sanitation, and lack of bedding in the immigration detention centers. In August the Indonesian civil society organization Coalition of Sovereign Migrant Workers accused Malaysian immigration officials of subjecting detained Indonesian migrant workers in Sabah to “systematic torture on an immense scale” in inhuman conditions and without adequate food and water. The group claimed detainees who disobeyed the guards were punched and kicked, then expected to say “thank you, teacher” to the officers; if they did not say thank you when they were hit, they would be hit again. They were also punished by being forced to squat on the floor all day long.
Local and international NGOs estimated most of the country’s 17 immigration detention centers were at or beyond capacity, with some detainees held for a year or longer. The number detained in these centers was not publicly available.
Human rights organizations expressed serious concerns about the lack of access to fair legal process and adequate representation during immigration court hearings. The Malaysian Bar Council strongly criticized the immigration courts in detention centers as facilitating a legal process where migrant workers were not provided with a clear understanding of the charges against them in their own language and were effectively denied the right to legal counsel. At court hearings, 15 to 20 migrants were often tried together, grouped by the offense with which they were charged. If found guilty, the cost of deportation generally fell to the detainee, which led to prolonged detention for those unable to pay.
The government on several occasions forcibly expelled boats with refugees and asylum seekers from a country where their lives or freedom could be threatened based on their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. The NGO Fortify Rights reported that on April 16, the Bangladesh Coast Guard rescued 396 Rohingya from a boat that was adrift for weeks, sustaining up to 60 fatalities; earlier Malaysian authorities had forced it back out to sea. They also reported that on April 16, the Royal Malaysian Air Force and Royal Malaysian Navy forced another boat with more than 200 Rohingya back to sea. On June 8, Defense Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob reported that authorities had blocked the arrival of 22 boats with foreigners, excluding the boats carrying Rohingya refugees, since May 1.
Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for granting asylum or refugee status, and the government has not established a system for providing protection to refugees.
Migrants, refugees, and stateless persons receive no government support. The government allows UNHCR and NGOs to work with these populations, but government cooperation with UNHCR was inconsistent.
As “illegal immigrants,” refugees and others are subject to deportation at any time. They also face a maximum five years’ imprisonment, a fine, or both, and mandatory caning with a maximum six strokes if convicted of immigration-law violations. In June, 40 Rohingya refugees were sentenced to seven months in jail for arriving in the country by boat without a valid permit. Of them, 27 men were also sentenced to three strokes with a cane. The high court later set aside the caning following an outcry from human rights defenders.
Freedom of Movement: The government generally tolerated the presence of undocumented refugees and asylum seekers but sometimes detained them for a variety of causes in police jails or immigration detention centers until they could be deported or UNHCR established their bona fides. Some refugees holding UNHCR identification cards nonetheless reported limited ability to move throughout the country because authorities sometimes did not recognize the UNHCR card.
Employment: Although the government does not authorize UNHCR-registered refugees to work, it typically did not interfere if they performed informal work. UNHCR reported the government brought charges, in a few cases, against employers for hiring refugees. Refugees employed in the informal sector were paid lower wages than comparable employees and were vulnerable to exploitation.
Access to Basic Services: The government provided access to health care at a discounted foreigner’s rate of 50 percent to UNHCR-registered refugees, but not to persons without UNHCR registration cards. NGOs operated static and mobile clinics, but their number and access were limited. Refugees did not have access to the public education system. Access to education was limited to schools run by NGOs and ethnic communities, and UNHCR estimated no more than 40 percent of refugee children attended school. A lack of resources and qualified teachers limited opportunities for the majority of school-age refugee children. UNHCR staff members conducted numerous visits to prisons and immigration detention centers to provide counseling, support, and legal representation for refugees and asylum seekers.
Temporary Protection: The government provided temporary, renewable residence permits to a group of Syrian refugees. The permit allows for legal residency and conveys work rights, but it must be renewed annually. The migrant rights NGO Tenaganita, however, said the Syrian refugees often were unable fully to access the rights awarded to them through this permit and experienced difficulty accessing health care and academic institutions.