Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – Malaysia has made a new government tracking system a “must” for the more than 184,000 UN-registered refugees and asylum-seekers in the country, raising concerns about the risks for people who lack legal status or protection in Malaysia.
Interior Minister Hamzah Zainudin announced that the federal government approved the use of the Tracking Refugees Information System (TRIS) on July 22, adding that all refugees must register in the system in order to “track the whereabouts of refugees and their registration in the country.” to investigate”. .
“TRIS can also ensure whether they are living in our country for the purpose of employment or doing other matters that could be improved by the policy approved by the National Security Council,” he said.
The UN defines refugees as people who have fled war, violence, conflict or persecution and who have crossed an international border to find safety in another country. Thousands of refugees in Malaysia have fled countries like Myanmar, Syria and Yemen.
The minister’s recent announcement has drawn renewed attention to a system introduced in 2017 and has raised concerns about its purpose and its impact on the lives of people who are already marginalized.
On its website, TRIS is described as a mandatory registration system initiated by the government for every UNHCR card holder and asylum seeker residing in Malaysia, and every registered refugee and asylum seeker is issued a special government-certified ID card called (MyRC) .
The information system is operated and implemented by a private company called Barisan Mahamega Sdn Bhd, which has been given responsibility for the administration of the system by the Ministry of the Interior.
Refugees in Malaysia have no legal protection in the country but must share their home address with the government when registering with TRIS [File: Lim Huey Teng/Reuters]
Companies Commission filings show that the company is headed by Akhil Bulat, a former head of the Special Branch, the intelligence branch of the Malaysian police force. Akhil, who retired in 2015, is also the company’s largest shareholder.
The TRIS website mentions that the aim of the system is to help the government solve problems related to monitoring the status of refugees and asylum seekers residing in Malaysia.
“The rising number of refugees in the country is having a negative impact on the government,” the website said.
“Registration and [to] control them [refugees] are so important to ensure the security of the country because of the concentration of refugees in particular, which have an impact on the emergence of social problems.”
The UN refugee agency, which occupies a sprawling compound not far from central Kuala Lumpur, is usually the first port of call for newcomers to Malaysia.
Refugees and asylum-seekers go through a long process of detailed and in-depth interviews that can take months before they receive the UNHCR card, which offers them some protection while living in Malaysia awaiting possible resettlement in a third country.
Munira Mustaffa, a non-resident collaborator at the New Lines Institute of Strategy and Policy in Washington, DC, told Al Jazeera that in a highly secure world, host countries often perceive refugees as a risk to their country’s security.
“Refugees pose no threat to Malaysia’s security at all,” she adds. “To be honest, they are, in contrast, more exposed to such risks given their limited access to the legal system for redress and their lesser inclination to trust authorities and/or the police to report claims and seek help.”
The Alliance of Chin Refugees in Malaysia, a community group for the more than 23,000 ethnic Chin people who have arrived in the country from Myanmar, has condemned TRIS.
James Bawi Thang Bik, a representative for the group, told Al Jazeera the system is a “trap” and expressed concern that the data collected by TRIS was being shared with the government without the refugees’ consent.
“If you see refugees as a threat to society, then I would ask: what about crimes that are not committed by refugees?” he said.
“Refugees honestly work hard to support their families. They deserve to be viewed as a contributing group to Malaysia, not a threat.”
The Home Office did not respond to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment on TRIS.
Malaysia has not signed the UN Refugee Convention, and asylum seekers and refugees are considered under the law to be “illegal migrants” who cannot legally work, access healthcare or send their children to school.
Malaysian immigration officials conducted a raid last month to find undocumented migrants. Because they have no legal status in Malaysia, refugees are considered “illegal” and fear arrest [File: Hasnoor Hussain/Reuters]
The TRIS website says the company’s data matches information UNHCR is already collecting.
Ahmad*, a Syrian refugee who registered in the system in May 2022, told Al Jazeera he learned about the system through his manager at work, who told him and his colleagues that the MyRC card protected them from would provide to the government.
According to Ahmad, TRIS offers two registration methods.
The first costs 500 Malaysian Ringgit ($112) and gives the refugee the MyRC card the same day, while the other costs 50 Malaysian Ringgit and takes about a month.
After paying for the cheaper service, Ahmad was supposed to receive his card in June, but he and some of his other colleagues have still not received their cards.
Ahmad recalls that during his TRIS registration interview he was asked numerous questions and asked to provide many details for the process including his UNHCR card details, address and place of work. He also had to identify himself biometrically.
“I gave all my UNHCR card and passport details and they took all my 10 fingerprints and requested details and contacts about my place of work, family members and where I live,” he said.
The UN refugee agency in Kuala Lumpur told Al Jazeera that while the government was aware of the original plans for the TRIS system, the government had not raised the issue of its implementation with them in meetings in recent years.
Yante Ismail, spokesman for UNHCR, told Al Jazeera that the organization had previously made recommendations on TRIS, which it believed would help clarify the structural and practical details of the program.
“Our recommendations included the development of an overarching framework that provides relevant policies, regulations and operational guidance for its implementation, including the purpose of registration, the benefits of the card, the roles and responsibilities of stakeholders, quality assurance and the protection of personal data,” She said.
In May this year, the interior minister accused UNHCR of issuing refugee ID cards “arbitrarily”, claiming that immigration officials had found the ID cards on Indonesian nationals during a raid.
In response, the UN agency said the cards “were issued to those who meet the accepted international definition of refugee protection needs, without discrimination on the basis of race, religion or nationality”.
promise of protection
According to the information offered on the TRIS website, the main advantage of the MyRC card is the easy verification of refugees and asylum seekers.
“The government can easily verify the identity of them by using [a] national database. This minimizes the risk of being arrested and detained,” the website reads.
Like many countries in Southeast Asia, Malaysia is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention [File: Fazry Ismail/EPA]
But UNHCR told Al Jazeera that refugees told them MyRC cardholders had been arrested.
Previously, the agency was able to visit immigration detention centers to verify refugees’ identities and secure their release, but has not been able to access the sites since 2019. Earlier this year, it emerged that hundreds of mostly Muslim Rohingya refugees were being held in detention when six of them were run over and killed on a nearby highway after fleeing the center.
During his registration with TRIS, Ahmad asked the officer if the card would protect him from being arrested at work in the event of immigration raids.
“I asked her if showing the card would protect me from arrest and she said no.”
While the TRIS website claims the company is working with the Home Office to offer refugees temporary work permits, James Bawi Thang Bik of the Chin Refugee Alliance told Al Jazeera that such promises are just one way refugees are given their information to tempt.
Still, it encouraged some to enroll when the program originally launched five years ago, he added.
“They promised that those who hold the MyRC card would be given the right to work, the right to access education, freedom from arrest and imprisonment, apply for a driver’s license and apply for a bank account,” he said.
According to James Bawi Thang Bik, although some had paid 500 Malaysian ringgit for their cards, many refugees chose not to renew their cards after the first year in which the promises failed to materialize.
“This can be viewed as exploiting and exploiting the vulnerability of refugees for their own benefit,” he added. “Refugee assistance is always free at UNHCR.”
TRIS did not respond to Al Jazeera requests for comment on its registration system.
Ahmad told Al Jazeera that he felt disappointed and taken advantage of after realizing his MyRC card would not give him any benefits despite providing sensitive information for registration.
“If they really want to help refugees and advance their situation here, they should offer us the opportunity to be a part of this society, because we already are,” he said.
“Let’s work legally and get education. If they claim to protect Malaysia from refugees engaging in illegal activities, why not provide a legal way for refugees to earn a living?”
*Pseudonyms were used to protect the identity of the refugees.