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Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons

The constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights. There were some restrictions, however, with respect to the eastern states of Sabah and Sarawak in particular.

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: The government generally did not impede organizations providing protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern. Access to those in detention centers, however, was often significantly delayed. Government cooperation with UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration was inconsistent, and there were several flashpoints.

In February police conducted a multiday operation checking for undocumented migrants in front of UNHCR offices in Kuala Lumpur and detained or arrested dozens entering and exiting the building. In July, UNHCR temporarily halted operations in response to a government directive barring UNHCR from issuing refugee cards to “walk-in” applicants. In mid-August, UNHCR reported its operations had returned to normal.

NGOs and international organizations involved with migrant workers, refugees, and asylum seekers 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. An NGO with access to the detention centers claimed these conditions and lack of medical screening and treatment facilitated the spread of disease and contributed to deaths. NGOs provided most of the medical care and treatment in the detention centers.

In-country Movement: Consistent with the 1963 agreement that incorporated Sabah and Sarawak into the country, these eastern states controlled immigration into their areas and required citizens from peninsular Malaysia and foreigners to present passports or national identity cards for entry. Authorities continued to deny entry to selected national opposition leaders to East Malaysian states.

Foreign Travel: Travel to Israel is subject to approval and limited to religious purposes. The government also sometimes used its powers to restrict travel by its critics. In May immigration authorities prevented Bersih Chair Maria Chin Abdullah from boarding a flight to Seoul, Korea, to accept a human rights award. Government officials did not explain the decision but noted travel abroad by citizens was a privilege not a right.


Access to Asylum: The laws do not provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status; nonetheless, the government generally cooperated with UNHCR and occasionally reported potential persons of concern to UNHCR.

According to UNHCR there were 150,669 persons of concern, including 135,475 of Myanmar origin, as of October 31. During the year UNHCR successfully resettled 7,600 refugees.

Refoulement: The government did not provide legal protection against the expulsion or return of refugees to countries where their lives or freedom would be threatened based on their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion but generally tolerated the presence of asylum seekers on its territory.

Freedom of movement: The government sometimes detained asylum seekers, in either police jails or immigration detention centers, until UNHCR established the asylum seekers’ bona fides. Local and international NGOs estimated the population at most of the country’s 17 immigration detention centers was at or beyond capacity, with some detainees held for a year or more. The number detained in these centers was not publicly available.

Employment: Although the government does not legally authorize UNHCR-registered refugees to work, the government typically did not interfere if they performed informal work. UNHCR reported the government brought charges, in a few cases, against employers for hiring them.

Access to Basic Services: For persons with UNHCR cards, the government provided access to health care for refugees at a discounted foreigner’s rate but not to asylum seekers. NGOs operated mobile clinics, but access was 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 30 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: In November the government announced plans to allow another 500 Syrian refugees to enter the country, in addition to the 78 already here. The announcement was in line with a 2015 pledge to provide temporary asylum to 3,000 such refugees over a three-year period.


UNHCR estimated there were 11,689 stateless persons in the country, 40 percent of whom were children. National Registration Department officials stated they do not keep records of stateless persons.

A number of local NGOs and SUHAKAM did research, conducted workshops, and ran public awareness campaigns on the problem of stateless children.

Foreigners may qualify for permanent resident status after several years of marriage to a citizen: five years of marriage for foreign women married to citizen men; 10 years for foreign men married to citizen women. After two years of permanent resident status, they are eligible to apply for citizenship. While awaiting permanent resident status, authorities usually granted visas to foreign spouses of citizens to allow them an extended legal stay in the country. A local advocacy group for migrant workers reported that in the last five or six years, procedures improved to include shorter waiting times in the processing of permanent residency petitions and visas. Although nationality laws in the country were not overtly discriminatory due to ethnicity or religion, there was a perception Muslims received preference.

Authorities considered children born out of wedlock to foreign women to have inherited their mother’s citizenship. Authorities allow registration of such births only if the mother produces proof of her citizenship, creating a risk of statelessness because many foreign women were unable to produce a passport or other evidence. According to UNHCR, refugees or asylum seekers often did not have valid proof of citizenship. In such cases authorities entered the child’s citizenship as “unknown” on the birth certificate. UNHCR deemed this a widespread problem and reported in November there was a population of approximately 80,000 Filipino Muslim refugees in the eastern state of Sabah. Of these an estimated 10,000 were children without birth documentation and thus technically stateless.

Although children born in the country of illegal migrant mothers married to citizen men are eligible for citizenship, the mother may have difficulty registering the marriage and subsequently the child’s citizenship because of inability to provide a valid passport or identification document. Some observers indicated that children born to Muslim refugees and asylum seekers often had an easier time obtaining citizenship than non-Muslim refugees and asylum seekers. For refugees in Muslim marriages, the observers claimed authorities often accepted a UNHCR document or other documentation in lieu of a passport.

Persons who lacked proof of citizenship were not able to attend school, access government services such as reduced cost health care, or own property. UNHCR may provide birth registration or other documentation in some cases.

By law authorities consider illegal anyone entering the country without appropriate documentation. Such persons face a mandatory maximum five years’ imprisonment, a maximum fine of 10,000 RM ($2,250), or both, and mandatory caning of not more than six strokes.

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