Politics at play in Sabah resettlement of refugees

Posted on August 20, 2012

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The deportation of refugees from the disputed territory of Sabah, a territory claimed in part by both Malaysia and the Philippines, has long been a political hot potato.

Over the last three decades, Malaysia has increasingly relied on the employment of a cheaper and more readily available, less-skilled foreign labour force from within the Asian region.

Sabah, in the northern portion of the island of Borneo, has one of the highest population growth rates in the Malaysia as a result of immigration from the Muslim-dominated southern provinces of Philippines. Many refugees were displaced by the war in Mindanao in the early 1970s. Over the years a number of misconceptions about both refugees and migrants, who are predominantly of Malay stock and of Islamic faith, have spread among the indigenous population.

This has apparently led to a growing perception among some Borneon Sabahan, who for the most part are Christians, that they have become minorities in their own homeland and refugees are commonly associated with social problems. Capitalising on these sentiment, Malaysia’s Prime Minister announced back in June that the federal government was establishing a Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI) to investigate problems related to refugees.

However the human rights group Lawyers for Liberty has warned that certain demands imposed on the Commission may have “serious repercussion” on the lives of some of the state’s most vulnerable people, including undocumented women and street children of refugee or migrant descent.

“While the issues at stake are serious and have far-reaching consequences, the citizenship and fundamental human rights of persons should not be sacrificed for the sake of political mileage or sensationalism,” said RCI co-founder Eric Paulsen in a statement.

He noted that there could be generations of migrants in Sabah who have permanently settled in the state, either through marriage or birth.

“These people may have properly acquired citizenship or permanent resident status and all the accompanying rights, along with acquiring a relevant and genuine link with Sabah and Malaysia,” he added.

SOURCE: The Sun Daily

Yet the recognition of refugees is a complex and controversial issue in Malaysia. Despite the work of international organisations such as UNHCR and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), the fact remains that Malaysia’s refugee policy making takes place outside a human rights framework. The country has not ratified the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees or its 1967 Protocol, nor has it established a system for providing protection to refugees and it does not provide protection against refoulement.

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Posted in: refugees, UNHCR