Refugees in Malaysia worry government tracking system a ‘trap’

Home minister says all refugees with UNHCR cards must register with its TRIS system, but refugees worry about the risk.

A Rohingya woman in a headscarf holds her the card given to her by UNHCR
Any refugee in Malaysia with a UNHCR card must also register with TRIS, a government tracking system [File: Azhar Rahim/EPA]

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – Malaysia has made a new government tracking system for the more than 184,000 United Nations-registered refugees and asylum seekers in the country a “must”, raising concerns about the risks to people who have no legal status or protections in Malaysia.

Home Minister Hamzah Zainudin announced that the federal government had approved the use of the Tracking Refugees Information System (TRIS) on July 22, adding that all refugees had to register on the system to “identify the whereabouts of refugees and their reporting in the country”.

“TRIS can also ensure whether they are living in our country for the purpose of employment or to carry out other matters which could be improved through 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 have crossed an international border to find safety in another country. The thousands of refugees in Malaysia have escaped from countries including Myanmar, Syria and Yemen.

The minister’s recent announcement has brought renewed attention to a system that was initiated in 2017, and has raised concern about its purpose and effect on the lives of people who are already marginalised.

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

The information system is run and implemented by a private company called Barisan Mahamega Sdn Bhd, which was given the responsibility of handling the system by the home ministry.

A refugee in Kuala Lumpur watches the street from behind a security gate on his door
Refugees in Malaysia have no legal protections in the country, but will have to share their home address with the government when they register with TRIS [File: Lim Huey Teng/Reuters]

Companies Commission filings show the company is chaired by Akhil Bulat, a former head of the Special Branch, the intelligence division of the Malaysian police. Akhil, who retired in 2015, is also the company’s largest shareholder.

Security objectives

The TRIS website mentions that the objective of the system is to help the government settle issues related to monitoring the status of refugees and asylum seekers residing in Malaysia.

“Increasing number of refugees in the country give the bad impact on the Government,” the website says.

“Registration and [to] control them [refugees] are so critical to make sure the safety of the country as especially the refugees who pose impact to produce social problems are concentrated.”

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

Refugees and asylum seekers go through a long process of detailed and extensive interviews that can take months, before being handed the UNHCR card, which gives them some protection while they live in Malaysia awaiting potential resettlement in a third country.

Munira Mustaffa, a non-resident fellow at New Lines Institute of Strategy and Policy in Washington, DC, told Al Jazeera that in a highly securitised world, host countries often perceive refugees as a risk to their country’s security.

“Refugees don’t pose any danger to Malaysia’s safety at all,” she adds. “In all fairness, given their limited access to the legal system for redress and lower propensity to trust authorities and/or the police to report incidents of harm and seek assistance, their exposure to such risks is greater in contrast.”

The Alliance of Chin Refugees in Malaysia, a community group for the more than 23,000 ethnic Chin people who have come to the country from Myanmar, has condemned TRIS.

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

“If they see refugees as a threat to society, then I would ask: how about those crimes that are not committed by refugees?” he said.

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

The Home Ministry did not respond to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment on TRIS.

Malaysia has not signed the UN Convention on Refugees, and asylum seekers and refugees are considered “illegal migrants” under the law, unable to work legally, access medical care or send their children to school.

Immigration officers check documents during a night time raid in Kuala Lumpur
Malaysian immigration officers carry out a raid to find undocumented migrants last month. As they have no 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 in line with information the UNHCR already collects.

Ahmad*, a Syrian refugee who registered in 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 the MyRC card would offer them protection from the government.

According to Ahmad, TRIS offers two methods of registration.

The first costs 500 Malaysian ringgit ($112) and gives the refugee the MyRC card on 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 gotten their cards.

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

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

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

Yante Ismail, the UNHCR’s spokesperson, told Al Jazeera that the organisation previously provided recommendations about TRIS that it believed would help clarify the structural and practical details regarding the scheme.

“Our recommendations included the development of an overarching framework that would provide relevant policy, regulatory, and operational guidance on 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 officers found the cards with Indonesian nationals during a raid.

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

Promises of protection

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

“The Government can easily verify the identities of them using [a] national database. So, the risk of being arrested and detained is minimised,” 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 UNHCR told Al Jazeera that refugees had told them that MyRC cardholders had been arrested.

Previously, the agency has been able to visit immigration detention centres to verify refugees’ identities and secure their release, but it has not had access to the sites since 2019. Earlier this year, it emerged hundreds of mostly Muslim Rohingya refugees were being held in detention when six were run over and killed on a nearby highway after escaping the centre.

During his registration with TRIS, Ahmad asked the officer if the card would offer him protection from arrest at the workplace in case of immigration raids.

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

While the TRIS website claims the company is working with the Home Ministry to offer refugees temporary work permits, James Bawi Thang Bik from the Alliance of Chin Refugees told Al Jazeera that such promises were just a way to lure refugees into handing over their information.

Still, it had encouraged some to register when the programme was originally launched five years ago, he added.

“They promised that those who hold the MyRC card would be granted the right to work, right to access education, would be free from arrest & detention, being able to apply for driving licence and applying bank account,” he said.

According to James Bawi Thang Bik, many refugees decided not to renew their cards after the initial year when the promises did not materialise, even though some had paid 500 Malaysian ringgit for their cards.

“This can be considered exploiting and taking advantage of the vulnerability of refugees for their own benefit,” he added. “Refugee service is always free in UNHCR.”

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

Ahmad told Al Jazeera that he feels disappointed and exploited after realising that his MyRC card will not offer him any benefits despite him providing sensitive information for the registration.

“If they really want to help refugees and take the lead in handling their situations here, they should offer us the opportunity to be a part of this society, because we already are,” he said.

“Let us work and receive education legally. If they claim it’s for protecting Malaysia from refugees committing illegal activities, why not offer refugees a legal way to gain livelihood?”

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

Source: Al Jazeera