Monday, February 05, 2007

Bar Council: Managing the refugee issue

PRESS RELEASE: Managing the refugee issue

Press Release M'sia urged to work with UNHCR

Refugees, like migrant workers, are an international phenomenon that all nations who cherish peace and uphold humanitarian principles must accept and manage. Refuge, like most forms of migration, is an age-old human condition necessitated by hostile environments created often by societies and regimes.

It is not difficult to appreciate that a person would not travel hundreds or thousands of miles from home, to live or work in a strange land under difficult conditions, unless there exists the most compelling reasons to take that tough decision. Yet, refugees and migrant workers are often seen as troublemakers, or even criminals or persons who create social problems for their host.

This is largely the result of the lack of empathy. Malaysian society must reflect more deeply on these issues. Genuine refugees, like genuine migrant workers, are merely people less fortunate than us, and not less worthy. They deserve compassion, not scorn.

It is not denied that, if not properly managed, refugees and migrant workers can cause social and other problems to their host country. Hence, fair and efficient management is important. Proper management must include having full regard to humanitarian concerns as well as international law and conventions.

The Government has recently expressed the view that the office of the UNHCR gets in the way of enforcement agencies, namely the Immigration Department and RELA, in the performance of their duties.

The Bar Council is concerned that the Government is forming this view. It should not, and need not, be so. When properly understood, the role of the UNHCR in the management of refugees and asylum-seekers is a crucial one, in any country. The UNHCR applies a set of internationally accepted guidelines for status determination. It does not rubber stamp applications for refugee status. It in fact assists the host country in separating genuine refugees from other categories of undocumented persons, which would be in the interest of the security of the country.

Thus, we urge the Government to fully appreciate the indispensable functions of the UNHCR, and to grant them the fullest cooperation so that there will be fair and proper management of the refugee issue. More, not less, cooperation will benefit all parties and the nation as a whole. Cooperation will achieve its maximum benefit when the respective roles of the parties concerned are mutually appreciated and respected. Towards this end, we further urge the Government to increase constructive dialogue with the UNHCR and other stakeholders, including NGOs and the Bar Council.

The principle of non-refoulement, which prohibits the return of refugees and asylum-seekers to their countries of origin, is a principle of international law that stands quite apart from the 1951 Refugee Convention. Malaysia is bound by this principle of international law, notwithstanding that she has yet to sign the 1951 Refugee Convention (which she has been repeatedly urged by the Bar Council to do). Malaysia must continue to recognize the refugee status issued by the UNHCR. A coordinated approach with the UNHCR is the best way forward in responding to the issues of refugees and asylum seekers.

Dated 5 February, 2007

Yeo Yang Poh
Bar Council

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