Posted by: melodybelle | May 15, 2012

Final Report: UNHCR Malaysia

UNHCR Malaysia: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Report by Melody Stanford

My initial placement was an eight month internship with Africa-Middle East Refugee Assistance in Cairo, commencing July 2011. With the advent of the Revolution, however, and because the Egyptian elections were scheduled for September 2011, I became concerned that my internship in Cairo would be terminated prematurely. I therefore decided, with the kind assistance of Erica Contini and Marius Smith, to apply to UNHCR Malaysia as an alternative.

I chose UNHCR Malaysia as I have a basic grasp of Bahasa Malay and am interested in working in South-East Asia once I complete my studies. Fortunately I was accepted to intern with the ‘OPI’ unit at UNHCR Malaysia from early December 2011 until the end of March 2012.

Prior to departing for Malaysia, I knew only that I was to intern with ‘OPI’. As I understood the organisation, the RSD (Refugee Status Determination) team was the legal team, and so I assumed OPI was focussed more on development. As my Arts background is in International Relations and, to a limited extent, Development, I was excited about the prospect of furthering my knowledge and experiences in this area. Upon arrival, however, I was surprised by the magnitude of UNHCR’s operations, and soon discovered that OPI (Outreach, Protection and Intervention) is one of two legal units at UNHCR Malaysia.

Due to both the urban and often protracted nature of the refugee situation and the lack of legislative recognition of asylum seekers and refugees in Malaysia, there is wide scope for legal issues to arise in the daily lives of refugees. The OPI unit, which is unique to UNHCR Malaysia, was developed precisely to deal with legal issues encountered by refugees post-recognition and prior to resettlement.

The crux of my role at OPI was managing a fluctuating caseload along with 2-4 Malaysian legal aid students and another intern (at first, Karen from Malaysia, and later, Martin from Sweden). OPI operates by way of walk-in, not prescheduled, interviews and so between 10-30 POCs (Persons of Concern – encompassing asylum seekers and refugees) were interviewed daily.

The issues reported during interviews commonly included the following:

  • Denial of wages from employers
  • Assaults and robberies
  • Extortion by authorities
  • Sexual and gender based violence
  • Custody disputes and requests for divorce
  • Requests for financial assistance
  • Arrests
  • Forced deportations
  • Security threats (primarily by local gangsters or the authorities of the country of origin)

After completing an interview we were required to write a report and consult an OPI Officer regarding further action to be taken. In many cases a solution or partial solution could be found for the POC. In many others, however, I was pained to explain to the POC that the UNHCR was unable to provide assistance. This usually occurred where the POC lacked the legal standing to pursue action, where the UNHCR mandate didn’t encompass the matter at hand, or where there were insufficient resources to provide recourse to the POC. I found this latter situation a challenge to accept, especially in cases of financial assistance for medical patients. The line drawn between saving a life and making a life comfortable to live always seemed arbitrary and based on a theoretical point of view.

Access to justice and social services were undoubtedly the greatest challenges faced by POCs in Malaysia. One positive development is that the Malaysian government has agreed to reduce the foreigner’s rate at public hospitals by 50% for refugees holding a UNHCR card. This still represents, however, a cost far in excess of that paid by Malaysian residents. One access issue that particularly concerns me is that refugee children, technically ‘illegal immigrants’ under Malaysian law, are denied access to public education. Further, there is a legislative bar to NGOs providing education to ‘illegals’. As a result, refugee schools operate clandestinely and with no public funding or uniformity in curriculum, and have low attendance rates.

I was interested to learn that UNHCR Malaysia hires internally; that foreigners can only enter the organisation as a JPO (Junior Professional Officer) or an intern. From my experience, this policy, while positive in many senses, presented a danger that was poorly managed. That is, there appeared to be little competition for jobs – many employees had been hired because of their acquaintance with a current employee, and many employees had no educational background directly relevant to the field. Interns in other units also observed a lack of interest or passion in the work undertaken by some of the office staff. Nevertheless, it must be noted that there were some incredibly committed and capable people undertaking their roles with great compassion and professionalism.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed my internship with UNHCR Malaysia. I most enjoyed the personal interactions I had, and relationships I developed, with both individual POCs and the people I worked alongside of. I now feel far better equipped to work with refugees and asylum seekers here in Australia, as I bettered my interpersonal skills, interview techniques and ability to manage difficult caseloads. Unexpectedly, I also learned a great deal about office politics and managing difficult personalities in the workplace. My experiences at UNHCR Malaysia will have a lifelong impact, as I feel more certain than ever that my passion lies with refugee advocacy.

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