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No Asylum in Asia

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The dawn breaks and for Mena C (not her real name) it’s just a reminder that she’s spent more than 24 hours at her post. She has been looking after the phone all day yesterday and all night as well. Any time, she might get a call to the UNHCR hotline about another one of their asylum seekers being detained by police or immigration. This isn’t in Europe or the United States. This is Malaysia, a popular transit and stop for asylum seekers that come from as far as China or as close as nearby Burma.

Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore are popular havens of refuge for asylum seekers fleeing turmoil and persecution in their home countries. Neither of these countries have proper asylum procedures in place and officially, they do not and will not grant refugee status to anyone. There is no distinction made between economic migrants or refugees: if they entered Malaysia illegally under whatever circumstances, they face heavy fines, whipping and jail terms before being deported back to their countries of origin.

In Malaysia, the UNHCR has been forced to keep staff on a rotational vigil all day, every day. Whatever it takes, the UNHCR endeavors to make sure that refoulement – the forced return of an asylum seeker to where his life is endangered – does not happen. But there have been many cases where asylum seekers are sent right back to the horrors they escaped into the clutches of people who would do them harm.

Recently Malaysia roped in civilian Rela volunteers for a crackdown on illegal immigrants, paying them bounties and equipping some with guns. This was even after talks had been held with the UNHCR about more humane treatment of asylum seekers in Malaysia. But some see Malaysia having granted UNHCR permission to set up office in the country some comfort already; neighbouring Singapore ordered the UNHCR to halt its operations there.

Asian countries justify their harsh measures against asylum seekers as protecting their own people and their limited resources. They believe that richer countries should step in to help bear the burden of caring for refugees. But traditional places of asylum like Canada, Norway and Denmark have found asylum granting taxing on their own resources with citizens grumbling that their high taxes go towards sustaining these newcomers.

Returning to Malaysia, its overzealous enforcement of its immigration law has left foreign labour-dependant sectors bereft. Instead of recalling and legalising illegals, the government has instead cut a deal with Pakistan to allow a massive influx of Pakistani workers.

What is apparent in the Asian refugee situation is that governments place personal profit above humanitarian concern. Instead of dealing with the matter of asylum seekers and economic migrants humanely in a way that could benefit all concerned, Malaysia has instead preferred to flex muscle and curry favour with a potential new Asian trading partner in Pakistan. But that is the way of the world where compassion takes a back seat to cold currency.

Malaysian migrant workers under attack
UNHCR urges Malaysia to protect refugees during crackdown

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About Erna Mahyuni

  • “What is apparent in the Asian refugee situation is that governments place personal profit above humanitarian concern”
    welcome to the real world! generally, this is the case in every country out there.

  • Eric Olsen

    yes, but it’s still important to point out specific instances – it’s big world out there, very good job, thanks and welcome Erna!