KUALA LUMPUR — Amnesty International on Wednesday said Malaysia was a "dangerous" place for refugees who were often often abused, arrested and "treated like criminals".
The Southeast Asian nation has nearly 90,000 refugees and asylum-seekers but the human rights group estimates the number of unregistered refugees at more than twice the official figure.
Amnesty said the refugees, mainly from military-ruled Myanmar, came seeking refuge in Malaysia but were subjected to a litany of abuses as the government does not recognise their status.
"For those refugees and asylum-seekers who are forced to flee their homelands in search of protection, Malaysia is an unwelcoming and dangerous place," it said in a strongly-worded report ahead of World Refugee Day on June 20.
"They come to Malaysia seeking safety, having fled situations of torture, persecution or death threats. But once they arrive, they are abused, exploited, arrested and locked up -- in effect, treated like criminals," the group added.
Malaysia has not ratified the United Nation's Refugee Convention and refugees -- who also come from Sri Lanka, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan -- are often treated as undocumented workers, Amnesty said.
The lack of legal status means refugees can be punished by imprisonment for up to five years and whipping for illegally entering the country.
Amnesty also claimed the Malaysian government had deported refugees to persecution that they had fled, but said no new incidents had been recorded since July last year.
The rights group singled out a government-backed volunteer force known as RELA, which is empowered to carry out immigration checks, for alleged abuse and extorting money from refugees and asylum-seekers.
Malaysia in February said it would consider issuing identification cards to UN-recognised refugees and a proposal to allow them to work while awaiting resettlement abroad.
Mahmood Adam, the secretary-general of the Home Ministry which is tasked to implement the proposal, told AFP the government had yet to decide on the matter and it would be discussed next week.
Nazri Aziz, a senior cabinet minister in charge of law, conceded the abuses claimed by Amnesty took place but denied the government was mistreating refugees.
"It's not the fault of the government at all, they may be exploited by the people who employ them knowing that they have no legal status here," the minister in the prime minister's department told AFP in an interview.
"They take advantage of the refugees -- employ them and pay them the lowest salary, I don't think I want to deny that," Nazri said.
The minister said the government could not recognise the refugees as it was a "sensitive" matter but said they were allowed to stay in the country.
"We don't push them out into the seas... they are refugees, they came here and if they have equal rights, certainly the locals are not happy," said Nazri.
Amnesty urged Malaysia to immediately issue ID cards to the refugees and grant them the right to work. It also urged other countries to increase their resettlement of refugees currently in Malaysia.
"Refugees should be able to live with dignity while they are in Malaysia," Chris Nash, Amnesty International head of refugee and migrant rights, said in the report.