KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 21 ― There is an alleged market for securing refugee status through illegitimate means in Malaysia, with United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) cards being sold for thousands of ringgit, according to an Al-Jazeera investigation report.
Steve Chao, senior presenter for Al-Jazeera’s Asian current affairs programme 101 East who carried out a covert investigation claimed refugee communities in the country have paid anything from RM1,700 to RM3,500 for each card, allegedly brokered by UNHCR officials in Malaysia.
“UNHCR’S head Richard Towle says he has heard of such illegal activities, and that if a complaint is brought forward, it is investigated by an independent body out of Geneva,” Chao told Malay Mail Online in an email interview last night.
“Sources inside the UNHCR office in Malaysia tell us that an investigation has been conducted specifically looking at fraudulent activities of UNHCR staff. Towle also confirmed that for a period this year, all resettlement of refugees was suspended in Malaysia due to the investigation into fraudulent practices,” he added.
Chao ― whose exclusive “Malaysia's Unwanted” first aired on the Qatar-based news broadcaster’s channel on Astro earlier this morning ― had gone undercover to visit the immigration detention centre in the national capital, posing as a priest to check on the abysmal conditions that refugees and asylum seekers have to endure.
Chao claimed that aside from the sale of UNHCR cards, there was also fraud involving some 3,000 asylum seekers who allegedly used false identities to jump the queue and gain early interviews with UNHCR staff to determine refugee status.
“About 1,000 of them, we understand have been resettled in countries like the US, Canada and Australia,” he said, while adding that the refugees interviewed knew that UNHCR services were supposed to be free of charge.
Chao said Towle had told him that “he has heard of such illegal activities”, and that resettlement of refugees has been suspended in Malaysia due to investigations into fraudulent practices.
The Malaysian authorities also acknowledged that they were aware of the “scandals” involving UNHCR in the country, urging the refugee agency to be “more transparent” and share information on refugees recognised by the UN, he added.
Contacted separately by Malay Mail Online, UNHCR Malaysia spokesman Yante Ismail said the refugee agency has a “zero tolerance policy” on corruption involving any of their processes or individuals or organisations working with it.
She stressed that they “take allegations of corruption very seriously”, which are investigated thoroughly if proven to have any credible basis and appropriate action taken if proven to be true.
“UNHCR is aware of some allegations of fraud arising from its operation in Malaysia. These are being treated with the seriousness they require under the organisation's rules and procedures,” she told Malay Mail Online in an email interview yesterday.
Yante noted that refugees are constantly reminded that UNHCR services are offered free of charge, and encouraged them to immediately report any allegations of fraud.
Yante added that the UNHCR is saddled with a “large and unregulated” number of refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia, raising numerous challenges in providing them the necessary protection.
“UNHCR is in regular discussions with the Government to see how the protection of refugees can be improved and strengthened.
“(In) particular we believe the protection of refugees is best achieved through closer cooperation between UNHCR and the Government of Malaysia, particularly to find viable alternatives to detention,” Yante said.