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, emigration, and repatriation, but these rights were often restricted by federal and state government officials, particularly in eastern Sabah and Sarawak States.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: The government generally did not impede organizations providing protection and assistance to migrants, refugees, and stateless persons, most of whom lived intermingled with the general public. Access to those in detention centers, however, was often significantly limited.
Migrants, refugees, and stateless persons receive no government support. The government allows UNHCR and NGOs to work with these populations, but government cooperation with UNHCR was inconsistent. In 2017 the government launched the Tracking Refugees Information System to register refugees and collect their biometric data. The program requires refugees to pay an annual fee of RM500 ($125) for an identification card but did not provide any benefits.
As “illegal immigrants,” refugees and others are subject to deportation at any time. They also face a maximum five years’ imprisonment, a fine of RM10,000 ($2,500), or both, and mandatory caning of a maximum six strokes if convicted of immigration law violations.
In July the government used what some NGOs called inhuman and degrading methods to carry out a mass operation to arrest undocumented migrant workers.
Most migrants, refugees, and stateless persons lived in private accommodations and survived on support from UNHCR and NGOs or illegal casual labor. The government, however, held thousands in immigration detention centers and other facilities.
NGOs and international organizations involved with these populations 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 the lack of medical screening and treatment facilitated the spread of disease and contributed to deaths. NGOs provided most medical care and treatment in the detention centers.
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 longer. The number detained in these centers was not publicly available.
In-country Movement: Sabah and Sarawak States controlled immigration into their areas and required citizens from peninsular Malaysia and foreigners to present passports or national identity cards for entry. State authorities continued to deny entry to certain national opposition leaders to these states. Sarawak maintained a travel ban on a SUHAKAM commissioner for criticizing the construction of a controversial dam in the state. SUHAKAM stated the travel ban prevented it from holding its October commission meeting as planned.
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 addition to preventing overseas travel by some activists, the former government temporarily detained and in some cases denied entry to foreign human rights activists.
In May immigration authorities banned former prime minister Najib Razak, his wife, and several other former government officials from traveling overseas because they were suspected of corruption, although they had not been charged with a crime at the time they attempted to leave the country. Authorities later charged Najib with 38 counts of money laundering, bribery, and criminal breach of trust, and his wife with 19 counts of money laundering and corruption.
PROTECTION OF REFUGEES
Refoulement: The government at times did not provide legal protection against the expulsion or forcible return of refugees to countries where their lives or freedom could be threatened based on their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. In 2017 authorities detained three Turkish citizens, one a UNHCR-registered refugee, and deported them to Turkey, reportedly at the request of the Turkish government. According to a report released during the year by a Swedish human rights group, a Turkish national deported by Malaysian authorities in 2016 was beaten, tortured, and threatened with death upon his return to Turkey. Malaysian human rights groups said in April that the incident violated international customary law.
In October the government released 11 Uighurs from prison and dropped charges against them of illegal entry. The government also rejected China’s request to forcibly return the group to China and allowed them to relocate to Turkey.
Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for granting asylum or refugee status; government cooperation with UNHCR was inconsistent, but the government occasionally reported potential refugees to UNHCR.
Human rights organizations expressed serious concerns about conditions in immigration detention centers and the lack of access to fair legal process and adequate representation during immigration court hearings. The Malaysian Bar Council has strongly criticized the immigration courts in detention centers as facilitating a legal process where migrant workers were not provided with a clear understanding of the charges against them in their own language and were effectively denied the right to legal counsel. At court hearings 15 to 20 migrants were often tried together, grouped by the offense with which they were charged. If found guilty the cost of deportation is generally at the detainee’s expense, which led to prolonged detention for migrants who were unable to pay.
Freedom of Movement: The government generally tolerated the presence of undocumented refugees and asylum seekers, but sometimes detained them for a variety of causes in police jails or immigration detention centers until they could be deported or UNHCR established their bona fides. Some refugees holding UNHCR identification cards reported, nonetheless, limited ability to move throughout the country because authorities sometimes did not recognize the UNHCR card.
Employment: Although the government does not authorize UNHCR-registered refugees to work, it typically did not interfere if they performed informal work. UNHCR reported the government brought charges, in a few cases, against employers for hiring them. During the year the government permitted a pilot program for 30 Rohingya refugees to work in a local bakery, a program refugee advocates said was a success.
Access to Basic Services: The government provided access to health care at a discounted foreigner’s rate of 50 percent to UNHCR-registered refugees, but not to asylum seekers, who did not receive UNHCR registration cards. NGOs operated mobile clinics, but their number and 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 40 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: The government provided temporary, renewable residence permits to a group of Syrian refugees. The permit allows for legal residency and conveys work rights, but must be renewed annually.
The National Registration Department did not maintain records of stateless persons. UNHCR estimated there were 12,350 stateless persons residing in peninsular Malaysia and 450,000 in Sabah. In May the government established a minority task force to address statelessness among members of the country’s ethnic Indian community.
Citizenship law and birth registration rules and procedures created a large class of stateless children in the migrant/refugee population. When mothers did not have valid proof of citizenship, authorities entered the child’s citizenship as “unknown” on the birth certificate. UNHCR deemed this a widespread problem and reported that, in a population of approximately 80,000 Filipino Muslim refugees in Sabah State, an estimated 10,000 were children who were technically stateless.
Even if the father is a citizen, the marriage may be considered invalid and the children illegitimate if the mother lacks proof of citizenship; such children were also considered stateless.
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 as proof of citizenship.
Persons who lacked proof of citizenship were not able to access government services, such as reduced cost health care, or own property.
In October the federal government approved the citizenship applications of two stateless children after lawyers sued the government. The cases of three other stateless children remained pending.