Posted by: melodybelle | February 4, 2012

Rogue blogger?

By Melody Stanford, Global Intern at UNHCR, Kuala Lumpur

Writing this entry I feel a little like a ‘toolie’; a Castan Centre Class of 2011 graduate, crashing the party of the 2012 interns. But don’t discount me as a rogue blogger just yet… As things turned out, 2011 wasn’t to be my year.

The original plan was Egypt, July 2011. I was selected to intern with the seminal and unparalleled ‘Africa and Middle East Refugee Assistance’ (AMERA), conducting refugee status determinations in Cairo. Sadly, with the advent of the Revolution, the escalating instability in the region made the placement untimely.

Nevertheless, my interest in refugee casework remained unwavering. Due to my knowledge of Bahasa and intrigue at the unrelenting determination of successive Australian governments to export our international obligations, I shifted my focus to the Asia-Pacific. With the generous support of the Castan Centre, I was able to secure an internship with UNHCR Malaysia. Not long after, the refugee swap deal between Australia and Malaysia materialised… My uncanny knack for choosing topical countries to intern in didn’t escape the attention of amused family and friends!

And so here I find myself living in the beauty and chaos of Kuala Lumpur. (Emphasis on ‘chaos’ over the 15 days of Chinese New Year… I have the ceaseless thunder of fireworks to thank for ‘inspiring’ me to write, and not sleep, in these wee hours!)

Unlike the placement at AMERA, my role at UNHCR Malaysia is not concerned with status determination but rather refugee protection. As many of you are likely aware following the M70/2011 decision, Malaysia is not a signatory to the 1951 Convention and accords no formal rights to refugees. In fact, Malaysian law makes no reference whatsoever to the class of persons defined as ‘refugees’ under international law. Thus those seeking asylum reside in Malaysia at what is often referred to, in true diplomatic style, as the ‘goodwill’ of the government.

The precariousness of the protection provided is particularly striking when it’s considered that all agreements brokered between UNHCR and the Malaysian government are devised behind closed doors, and result in mere gentlemen’s agreements.

Certainly, the apex of the ‘goodwill’ of the Malaysian government takes the form of a confidential administrative arrangement between the government and UNHCR, which exempts documented asylum seekers and refugees from prosecution under the Immigration Act 1959/63. While this agreement is the brainchild of an increasingly enlightened government, I can’t help but notice the reality lurking below the surface: the exemption is a matter of mere practice, not law.

A friend and fellow intern, Martin, had the privilege of seeing this agreement in action during the week when he accompanied an UNHCR officer, police and Immigration on a raid at an apartment building from 11pm-3am. Perhaps with just a tinge of disappointment, Martin reported that the raid was conducted in a very orderly and friendly fashion. Apparently there was even laughter shared by refugees and authorities when individuals failed to present documents authorising their stay in Malaysia. …Surely a positive sign of resignation on the part of authorities to the intractable situation faced by refugees?! In any case, documented refugees were permitted to return to their apartments, while undocumented asylum seekers were detained but will later be referred to UNHCR for registration.

In addition to the daily casework undertaken by Outreach, Protection and Intervention (OPI) Unit interns, we’ve each been invited to build on our experiences in various ways. While Martin is out conducting raids in the early morning, Karen, the other hardworking OPI intern, is out liaising with immigration officials and releasing refugees from detention centres. A week ago I had the pleasure of attending the annual UNHCR Malaysia Management Meeting, where each Head of Unit recounted their successes and failures of 2011 and articulated their projections for 2012-13. This coming week, Karen and I will be visiting detention centres to register and eventually release undocumented asylum seekers, and I’ll commence work on a project on statelessness in conjunction with a local NGO.

On top of this, I’ve been extremely fortunate to be surrounded by a vibrant group of likeminded interns from every corner of the globe. The horror stories we’re exposed to during the day tend to remain at work when we’re out in the evenings laughing at b-grade action films or sampling the array of fine foods Malaysia has to offer.

But I suppose I shouldn’t exploit your attention any longer! I hope this has satisfied the curiosity of some regarding the situation for refugees in Malaysia. Next entry I hope to get into the nitty gritty of the work carried out by the OPI team – a team which is just about as unflinching it sounds.


  1. Sounds like you’ve found your niche. It’s a more hands-on experience than some of our research internships and, as you say, incredibly topical right now. It was pleasing to read about the treatment of recognised refugees by the police, and hopefully the detained asylum seekers were duly released. Would like to hear more about that.

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