Asylum Access Malaysia submits shadow report to CEDAW regarding the rights of refugee women in Malaysia

Asylum Access Malaysia presented an independent report yesterday, February 20, in Geneva to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). The report focused on the status of refugee women and girls in Malaysia, and raised serious concerns regarding the absence of laws or enforceable policies guaranteeing the rights of refugee women to obtain legal status and access healthcare, formal employment and justice. The Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women is one of only three international human rights conventions ratified by Malaysia.

The report by Asylum Access Malaysia highlighted several issues: Malaysian state practice of detention and non-refoulement as it pertains to refugee women, sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) and lack of access to justice, lack of formal access to employment and lack of access to healthcare. Its findings are as follows:

Detention. Under the Malaysian Immigration Act 1959/63, detention of refugees and asylum-seekers is mandatory and automatic, with no individual assessment or review by the court. This is in direct violation of international laws stating that refugees should be protected from arbitrary arrest and detention to ensure their safety, and that when arrest or detention is unavoidable, they must have access to adequate facilities and services. The Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (SUHAKAM) reports that detention centers are overcrowded, detainees are subject to abuse, there is inadequate food, water, and medical care, poor sanitation, and female detainees lack adequate facilities and services appropriate to their specific needs as women. There is little information concerning gender sensitivity training for officers or gender-separated facilities, and no indication of healthcare for pregnant women.

Non-refoulement. Vulnerable asylum-seeking and refugee women continue to be deported in contravention of the principle of non-refoulement. There have been reports to the UNHCR of unregistered refugee women seeking antenatal treatment and being sent to detention upon delivery of their children, in some cases with their newborn babies, and in other cases forcibly separated from their children. Asylum Access Malaysia has received similar reports of refoulement of UNHCR card-holders from immigration detention centres, some were pregnant or had just given birth, indicating that the government is not upholding its commitment of non-refoulement to the CEDAW.

Sexual and gender-based violence and access to justice. Refugees’ lack of legal status exacerbates their vulnerability to violence, and they are left unable to access treatment or justice for legal and financial reasons. Fears of arrest, detention, and police extortion further deter refugee women from reporting violence, leaving them trapped in unsafe situations. It has been reported by NGOs working with asylum seekers and refugees that female detainees are subject to SGBV, including rape, while in detention, yet the government continues to fail to address this issue. The Malaysian government provides no legal aid or protection, and the Malaysian Department of Social Welfare does not intervene to assist a refugee child who is a victim or at risk of SGBV.

Healthcare. Attempting to access healthcare presents an additional number of obstacles. The costs of health care for refugees remain prohibitive, and NGOs working with asylum-seeking and refugee women report that many do not attend antenatal care appointments due to financial constraints. Fear of arrest and detention and insurmountable language barriers further deter these women. Inability to access healthcare leads to serious consequences, such as pregnancy complications, pregnancy-related death and infant disease or death.

Legal employment. Furthermore, lack of legal status means refugee women have no access to safe, legal employment, causing vulnerability to exploitation in the workplace, including a heightened risk of SGBV, withheld wages, unsafe working conditions and unfair dismissal. Lack of income contributes to marginalization and exploitation, and can lead to negative coping mechanisms such as survival sex or early marriage.

To read the full report, click here.