Safety and stability elude refugees seeking resettlement from Malaysia

Resettlement remains the most common solution for refugees fleeing persecution, but delays and other complications persist before and after resettlement

Liani MK
August 19, 2022
Safety and stability elude refugees seeking resettlement from Malaysia
A Rohingya boy eats as he is placed in a temporary shelter in Aceh province on Sumatra island. Photo: Amanda Jufrian/AFP

After nine years of waiting in Malaysia, Syrian refugee Hadi had abandoned all hopes of resettlement.

Escaping abuse and imprisonment from a country embroiled in civil war, Hadi had little choice but to assume Malaysia would be his long-term home.

That is, until June 2021. With two weeks’ resettlement notice from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Hadi and his brother found themselves packing for yet another big move, this time, to Canada.

Life has spun quickly since.

“Suddenly, you live in a country where you’re equal to everyone else,” the 29-year-old said. “Suddenly, you have the right to speak, and you don’t feel scared, ashamed or embarrassed.”

The transition to Canada, however, was not smooth. The brothers caught Covid-19 upon arrival and encountered a slew of issues with accommodation, food, medicine and transportation services that were not always available. They were assigned to a small town with one of the highest crime rates in the country.

“People think that when a refugee gets resettled, it’s this perfect dream come true, and you live happily ever after,” Hadi said. “But our first few months here have been difficult. We were so depressed.”

Resettlement, the process when refugees from a host country transfer to a third country, is currently the “most used durable solution” for refugees in Malaysia out of three long-term solutions, along with voluntary repatriation and local integration. 

Yet even after refugees escape hardship in their homelands and overcome the precarity of living in a second country where they are not guaranteed legal status, challenges abound as they resettle.

Being a refugee in Malaysia is like living in a big prison”

Hadi, Syrian refugee in Malaysia

Refugees have few choices after leaving their home country owing to war and fear of persecution as ethnic, political, religious or gender minorities. Many flee to Malaysia to seek asylum before applying to a third country. 

Despite hosting the largest number of refugees and asylum seekers in Southeast Asia with nearly 183,000 as of May 2022, Malaysia is not a signatory to the United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention, a multilateral treaty defining legal responsibilities that grant basic rights to refugees.

The absence of a legal protection framework in Malaysia means that the Malaysian law makes no distinction between refugees and undocumented migrants. Instead, the government allows only temporary stay of UNHCR cardholders, and relies on UNHCR to help resettle refugees to a third country. 

Rohingya refugees from Myanmar detained in Malaysia territorial waters off the island of Langkawi arrive at a jetty in Kuala Kedah, northern Malaysia. Photo: stringer/AFP

As refugees are not recognised under Malaysian law, many are vulnerable to arrests by immigration officers followed by prosecution and deportation. They are unable to easily access education and healthcare services and are only allowed work in informal sectors.

“You’re not allowed to live like a human being,” Hadi said. “Almost every refugee in Malaysia has had at least one encounter with a police or immigration officer. If you don’t bribe them, you could be detained.”

The challenges have been compounded by the treatment of refugees by the Malaysian government and immigration authorities, including indefinite detainment and refusal to allow refugee boats to dock. In July 2022, the home ministry announced a tracking system to identify where refugees live and if they are in the country for work “or to carry out other matters”.

“Being a refugee in Malaysia is like living in a big prison,” Hadi said.

Amina, a Rohingya refugee living in Penang, feared her 4-year-old son would not receive schooling due to their refugee status.

“Life is difficult enough as an adult. How is it going to be for my son,” she said. “This is why I’m so anxious about resettling. My repeated emails to UNHCR have started to bounce and I’m worried they’ve stopped processing my applications.”

Rohingya refugees from Mynamar, who had escaped from Malaysian Immigration’s temporary Sungai Bakap depot, detained on the side of a highway in Penang. Photo: Royal Malaysia Police/AFP

Resettlement pathway

Although resettlement remains a “life-saving tool” for refugees fleeing persecution, according to UNHCR spokesperson Shabia Mantoo, less than 1% of the world’s refugees are resettled each year. This year, just 986 refugees have been resettled from Malaysia between January and June, while 4,267 resettlement applications have been submitted for review, according to UNHCR’s online resettlement data finder tool.

“Resettlement is not an automatic right for all refugees,” UNHCR spokesperson Yante Ismail said.

The resettlement process depends on various factors as decisions rest with the resettlement countries, according to Ismail. “Given the limited numbers of resettlement places worldwide, it is prioritised for highly vulnerable refugees and those in need of urgent protection.”

To apply for resettlement, an asylum seeker must first register for a UNHCR card to confirm their refugee status for international protection. The card can take a few months to three years to obtain.

The resettlement application then involves several rounds of assessments, interviews and verifications across a range of months and years, while final approval can take decades.

Among 27 resettlement countries in the world, the United States and Canada are the two top resettlement countries to accept refugees.

The U.S. state department and other agencies work with nine resettlement organisations to coordinate refugee integration. A cooperative agreement with the resettlement agencies specify services to be provided in a refugee’s first 90 days in the U.S.

With initial government funding, resettlement agencies arrange affiliates to welcome them, assisting with housing, food and social security card registration.

Resettled refugees in Canada are offered income allowances, loans and other support services through the Resettlement Assistance Program by service provider organisations during their first four to six weeks. 

“Every refugee is assisted by a caseworker,” said Pari, an Afghan Sunni refugee who resettled in Canada from Malaysia and Iran.

Many refugees like herself volunteer in programmes including Moving Ahead, organised by MOSAIC, one of the largest settlement organisations providing individual assistance to newcomers.

However, refugees continue to experience depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and even psychosis after resettlement, according to a 2019 study published by Jornal Brasileiro de Psiquiatria.

“Every refugee I’ve worked with – from Syrian to Rohingya refugees – have experienced some type of trauma,” said Sheila Badwan, vice president of U.S.-based Hanan Refugee Relief Group (HRRG). HRRG conducts mentoring programmes for resettled refugee communities in North Carolina, Virginia and Wisconsin, which has the largest Rohingya community in the U.S.

Badwan said she has observed depression and PTSD among refugees even after resettlement. “Refugees come here with survivor’s guilt that they were able to arrive here while their families are left behind.”

Problems can multiply when resettlement agencies assign refugees to areas notorious for crimes including gun violence and robbery. 

“When families are placed in high-crime areas, that’s secondary trauma in itself,” said Badwan, who handles close to 400 resettlement cases annually.

“I don’t think the structural challenges and their traumatic experiences have been addressed enough,” Badwan said. “We’ve met refugees who never got the services they should have gotten even after two to five years.”

Rohingya refugees, who landed on an isolated northern shore near the Malaysia-Thai border, huddle in a group in Kangar following their detention by Malaysian immigration authorities. Photo: Ismael Kamaldin/AFP

Finding a home

The UNHCR expects global refugee resettlement needs to rise by 36% in 2023, translating to more than 2 million refugees requiring resettlement.

Although the international body has urged countries to implement more flexible resettlement quotas, applications have been delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic, government restrictions and indefinite detainments for those lacking documentation. Many refugees are also unable to easily access their application status and encounter difficulties navigating the UNHCR website.

“It is exhausting and detrimental to a person’s mental health to first leave a country due to persecution or war, and then arrive in another country with the same fear and uncertainty,” said Heidy Quah, executive director of Malaysian NGO, Refuge for the Refugees that writes referrals and assists refugees with their resettlement applications.

Handling up to 30 cases a month, Quah said UNHCR could improve the process through personal engagement including regular updates on the status of applicants to help ease their state of mind.

The Malaysia government could also do more to integrate and support the experience of refugees living in the country by offering basic access to education, healthcare and job opportunities, Quah said.

“I know Malaysia hasn’t signed the Refugee Convention, but if refugees are allowed to work, that would make such a huge difference,” Quah said.

Granting refugees the legal right to work could positively impact Malaysia’s economy and public finances by increasing the country’s annual GDP up to $674 million (3 billion Malaysian ringgit) by 2024, according to a study by the Institute of Democracy and Economic Affairs.

“Access to legal work would also transform the quality and protection of refugees’ lives in terms of enhancing self-reliance,” UNHCR spokesperson Ismail said, making it a “win-win” for both Malaysia’s economy as well as serving the humanitarian needs of refugees.

Allowing refugees the chance to contribute to Malaysian society could increase their dignity after escaping traumatic experiences, added Iranian refugee Reza, whose online work is his primary income.

A refugee is constantly in a state “between leaving and staying,” Reza said. 

Many refugees, including those who resettled to third countries, hope Malaysia will one day recognise their status in the place where they sought safety and found a community where they can lead normal lives, he said.

“Even though the law doesn’t say it,” Reza said, “in your heart, you know that this is home.”

Pseudonyms have been used to protect the identities of refugees who were concerned about their safety or residency status.

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