Refugees in Malaysia worry government tracking system a ‘trap’

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – Malaysia has created a new government tracking system for the country’s more than 184,000 UN-registered refugees and asylum seekers, raising concerns about the risks to those who have no legal status or protection in Malaysia.

Interior Minister Hamzah Zainuddin announced that the federal government had approved the use of the Tracking Refugee Information System (TRIS) on July 22, adding that all refugees would have to register on the system “to identify the location of refugees in the country and their reports”. .

“TRIS can also ascertain whether they are staying in our country for the purpose of employment or to carry out other matters that may be modified by the policy approved by the National Security Council,” he said.

UN defines Refugees are people who have fled war, violence, conflict or persecution and crossed international borders to seek safety in another country. Thousands of Malaysian refugees have fled from Myanmar, Syria and Yemen.

The minister’s recent announcement has drawn renewed attention to the system, launched in 2017, and raised concerns about its purpose and impact on the lives of people who are already marginalized.

On its website, TRIS is described as compulsory registration Plan Every UNHCR card holder and asylum seeker residing in Malaysia receives a special identity card called (MyRC) issued by the government and every registered refugee and asylum seeker certified by the government.

The information system is operated and operated by a private company called Barisan Mahamega Sdn Bhd, which was entrusted by the Ministry of Home Affairs to handle the system.

Refugees in Malaysia have no legal protection in the country, but are required to tell the government their home address when they register with TRIS. [File: Lim Huey Teng/Reuters]

Akhil Bulat, a former head of the Special Branch of the Malaysian Police’s Intelligence Division, is the chairman of the company. Akhil, who retired in 2015, is also the largest shareholder of the company.

Security Objectives

The TRIS website states that the purpose of the system is to help the government address issues related to monitoring the status of refugees and asylum seekers living in Malaysia.

“The growing number of refugees in the country has a bad effect on the government,” the website says.

“Registration and [to] Control them [refugees] They are very important to ensure that the refugees who create social problems especially the security of the country are integrated.”

The UN refugee agency, housed in a sprawling compound not far from the center of Kuala Lumpur, is the first port of call for new arrivals in Malaysia.

Refugees and asylum seekers have to go through a long process of detailed and extensive interviews before being handed a UNHCR card, which gives them some protection while they live in Malaysia awaiting possible resettlement in a third country.

Munira Mustafa, non-resident fellow at the New Lines Institute of Strategy and Policy in Washington, DC, told Al Jazeera that in a world of heightened security, host countries often view refugees as a threat to their country’s security.

“Refugees are not a threat to Malaysia’s security at all,” she added. “In all fairness, given their limited access to the legal system for redress and their low propensity to report incidents of harm and seek help from trusted authorities and/or the police, their exposure to such risks is conversely high.”

TRIS has been condemned by the Alliance of Chinese Refugees in Malaysia, a community of more than 23,000 ethnic Chinese who arrived in the country from Myanmar.

James Bawi Thang Bik, a representative of the group, told Al Jazeera that the system was a “trap” and expressed concern that data collected by TRIS would be shared with the government without refugees’ consent.

“If they think refugees are a threat to society, I would ask: What about crimes committed by refugees?” he said

“Refugees are honestly working hard to support their families. They deserve to be seen as a contributing group to Malaysia and not a threat. “

The Interior Ministry did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment on TRIS.

Malaysia is not a signatory to the UN Convention on Refugees, and asylum seekers and refugees are considered “illegal immigrants” by law, unable to legally work, access medical care or send their children to school.

Immigration officers check documents during a night raid in Kuala Lumpur
Malaysian immigration officials conduct raids to search for undocumented immigrants last month. As they lack legal status in Malaysia, refugees are considered ‘illegal’ and fear arrest [File: Hasnoor Hussain/Reuters]

Detailed information

The TRIS website says the company’s data is consistent with information UNHCR already collects.

Ahmed*, a Syrian refugee who registered with the system in May 2022, told Al Jazeera that he learned about the system through his manager at work who told him and his colleagues that having a MyRC card would give them protection from the government.

According to Ahmed, TRIS offers two modes of registration.

The first costs 500 Malaysian ringgit ($112) and issues a MyRC card to refugees on the same day, while the second costs 50 Malaysian ringgit and takes about a month.

After paying for the cheaper service, Ahmed was supposed to receive his card in June, but he and some of his colleagues have yet to receive their cards.

Ahmad recalls that during his TRIS registration interview he was asked numerous questions and requested to provide many details for the process, including his UNHCR card details, his address and where he works. He also had to provide a biometric identity card.

“I gave all my UNHCR card and passport details, and they took all 10 of my fingerprints and requested details and contacts about my place of work, family members and residence,” he said.

The UN refugee agency in Kuala Lumpur told Al Jazeera that while it was aware of initial plans for the TRIS system, the government had not raised the issue of implementation with them in meetings held in recent years.

UNHCR spokesperson Yante Ismail told Al Jazeera that the organization had previously made recommendations about TRIS which it believed would help clarify structural and practical details regarding the plan.

“Our recommendations include developing a comprehensive framework that will provide relevant policy, regulatory and operational guidance for its implementation, including the purpose of registration, benefits of the card, roles and responsibilities of stakeholders, quality assurance and protection of personal data,” she said. .

In May this year, the Home Minister accused UNHCR of issuing refugee cards “arbitrarily“, and claimed that immigration officials found cards belonging to Indonesian citizens during the raid.

In response, the UN agency said the cards were issued to “those who meet the accepted international definition of need for refugee protection, without discrimination on the basis of race, religion or nationality”.

Promises of protection

According to the TRIS website, the main advantage of the MyRC card is the easy verification of refugees and asylum seekers.

“The government can easily verify their identity using them [a] National database. Hence, the risk of arrest and detention is reduced,” the website says.

Immigration officers march with riot shields during Independence Day celebrations in Malaysia
Malaysia, like many countries in Southeast Asia, is not a signatory to the UN Convention on Refugees. [File: Fazry Ismail/EPA]

But the UNHCR told Al Jazeera that refugees had told them that MyRC card holders had been arrested.

Previously, the agency was able to visit immigration detention centers to verify the identities of refugees and release them, but as of 2019 it has not had access to the sites. Earlier this year, hundreds of Muslim Rohingya refugees were arrested. After fleeing the center, six people were abducted and killed on a nearby highway before being detained.

While registering with TRIS, Ahmad asked the officer if the card would protect him from detention at the workplace in the event of an immigration raid.

“I asked her if showing the card would protect me from arrest, and she said no.”

The TRIS website claims the company is working with the Ministry of Interior to issue temporary work permits to refugees, while James Bawi Thang Bik of the Alliance of China Refuges told Al Jazeera that such promises are a way to lure refugees into giving their information.

Still, some were encouraged to register when the program began five years ago, he added.

“They promised that those who have a MyRC card will have the right to work, the right to access education, be free from arrest and detention, be able to apply for a driving license and a bank account,” he said.

According to James Bawi Thang Bik, many refugees decided not to renew their cards after the initial year when promises were not fulfilled, despite paying 500 Malaysian ringgit for their cards.

“This can be considered exploitation and taking advantage of the vulnerability of refugees for their own benefit,” he added. “Refugee services at UNHCR are always free.”

TRIS did not respond to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment on its registration system.

Ahmed told Al Jazeera that he was frustrated and abused after realizing that his MyRC card would not give him any benefits despite providing sensitive information for registration.

“If they really want to help refugees and take the lead in dealing with their situation, they should give us a chance to be a part of this community, because we already are,” he said.

“Let us work and get legal education. If they claim to protect Malaysia from refugees doing illegal activities, why not give refugees a legal way to earn a living?

*Pseudonyms have been used to protect the identity of refugees.

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