Asia is home to the most refugees and displaced people of any region, including the world's largest-known stateless group, Myanmar's Rohingya. Although Malaysia is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, in 2015 the country was host to 246,270 "people of concern." At the end of June 2016 there were over 150,000 refugees and asylum seekers registered with the UNHCR in Malaysia. This figure comprises of over 130,000 from Myanmar and several thousand from both Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

Hamidi at the UN Summit

Malaysia's Deputy Prime Minister, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, spoke at the UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants earlier this month on behalf of Prime Minister Najib Razak. Zahid's speech drew on Malaysia's enduring role as a go-to destination for many refugees and asylum seekers in the context of ongoing regional political instability and crises. He called for improved practice by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in issuing identification cards and implementing resettlement regimes.

In a summit which focused on the challenges afflicting Europe, Africa and the Middle East, Zahid successfully skirted around the severe shortcomings of his government's longstanding domestic treatment of refugees and asylum seekers. Framing Malaysia's obligations as being limited to that of a "transit nation" for refugees and asylum seekers, Zahid called out "UNHCR, IOM (International Organization for Migration) and other state parties to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its related protocol," urging them "to give serious attention and promptly act...especially in providing financial...(and)...other humanitarian assistance" to Malaysia.

Zahid's confidence that Malaysia "would not obligations and commitment in addressing conflict induced migration costs by war, natural calamities and other factors" was presented as being central to the nation's ongoing solidarity with fellow Muslims in Syria. He concluded his speech by restating Prime Minister Razak's 70th UNGA commitment to taking "three thousand Syrian migrants over three years" and linked these efforts to Malaysia's historical humanitarian role and "continued devotion to this evolving issue."

In the context of Malaysia's below-average international performance in human rights and human trafficking (being only "partly free" in Freedom House's annual freedom ranking and a "Tier 2 Watch List" on the U.S. State Department's human trafficking classification), it's unsurprising that Zahid's speech attracted some domestic criticism. Prominent Zahid critic Ramasamy Palanisami, chief minister of the state of Penang, argued that the leadership's willingness to publicly proclaim its support for Syrian refugees and asylum seekers as a ploy to "score points internationally." The Institute for Strategic and International Studies Malaysia raised the UN Summit's "lack (of) focus on Asia," stressing that "Malaysia is no longer a transit country but a frontline state for refugees" and called for attention to be given to "boatloads of people (who) are still trafficked and smuggled into the country."

Malaysia's refugees and migrants

Malaysian law makes no distinction between refugees and undocumented migrants, which leaves Malaysia's stateless population extremely vulnerable. When Prime Minister Razak announced the decision to take Syrian refugees last year, some feared this would fuel the development of a two-tiered system prioritizing UNHCR processing of Syrian refugees ahead of other groups. In a country where many wait years to be processed by the UNHCR, this prioritization (which includes the provision of temporary working rights) demonstrates disregard for those suffering within Malaysia's borders.

Malaysia is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention or its related protocol. In order to comply with its international obligation to protect, the first step is for the Malaysian government to sign and ratify the Convention. This would not only demonstrate Malaysia's commitment to refugee protection to the international community, but would also reflect an understanding of the stronger role government should be playing in this arena.

If formal ratification of the Refugee Convention is too much of a commitment, the Malaysian government should recognize displaced persons in the country as "people of concern" who need protection. Implementing a government-administered registration scheme has the potential to address two areas the UNHCR view as priorities for stateless persons both in Malaysia and internationally: the right to work and, for children, the right to education. Providing legal work opportunities has potential to significantly boost Malaysia's economy, with the UNHCR estimating that a legalized refugee workforce could contribute RM152 million in annual revenue. The 2015 World Bank Economic Monitor supported these findings, underlining the role that immigrant labour plays in Malaysia's development and pursuit of high-income status. With documented immigrants raising employment and wages of Malaysians, and by connection increasing public revenue, there is a clear incentive for the government to develop a registration scheme. Without the government granting a formal right to work, the large stateless population cannot be protected from corporate abuses and human rights violations. Apart from the clear economic rationale, a right to work and earn an income has a transformational effect on the lives of refugee populations, with increased self-sufficiency attracting a higher standard of living across key areas such as health and education.

Despite significant improvements in 2015, the government of Malaysia does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking, according to the U.S. Department of State. Last year, there were more than 100 mass graves of trafficked asylum seekers found on the Thai-Malaysia border. Illegal boats in the Andaman Sea and porous border control have caused hundreds deaths. Malaysia should step up its international cooperation in search and rescue operations and humane border management.

According to the UNHCR Malaysia representative Richard Towle there have been positive developments relating to refugees' right to work and access to education and health care. These are welcome signs of Zahid's government working closely with the UNHCR country office in Kuala Lumpur.

Poorer countries host the most displaced persons. With this in mind, it is clear that Malaysia has an unequal responsibility both regionally and internationally relative to resources. However, it should not use this solely as an opportunity to attract foreign development aid or an excuse to exploit asylum seekers. Sustainable local integration is a viable option for refugees, and the international community can support this process. For this model to succeed, Malaysia must first demonstrate a strong commitment to protecting the rights of refugees and migrants.

This article originally appeared in the Lowy Interpreter.

First Editor: J. Michael Cole
Second Editor: Olivia Yang