When Malaysia turned away boatloads of Rohingya refugees from its shores earlier this year, it was criticised by international aid agencies.
They also questioned Malaysia's decision not to sign the United Nations 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and updating the Protocol adopted in 1967.
Nevertheless, by no means has Malaysia been inhumane to refugees who land in this country as they are generally treated well and given temporary shelter by the government.
As of end-October 2015, some 154,220 refugees and asylum-seekers were registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Malaysia. The majority (142,550) were from Myanmar, with the rest coming from Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Palestine and other nations.
Males made up 57 percent of the refugees and asylum-seekers, while 33,870 were children below the age of 18.
UNHCR itself, which is mandated with safeguarding the rights and well-being of refugees and asylum-seekers around the world, set foot in Malaysia a good 40 years ago.
In view of the rising refugee numbers in Malaysia, what can the government do to resolve the various issues and alleviate the problems faced by the refugees?
UNHCR representative in Malaysia Richard Towle said athough Malaysia was not a state party to the 1951 convention, the government and its various agencies, including non-governmental organisations (NGOs), have been cooperating with the UNHCR in addressing refugee issues on humanitarian grounds .
He said the UNHCR believed that a high degree of practical cooperation between the UN agency and the Malaysian government was required in order to find solutions to the problems faced by the refugees.
On its part, he added, the UNHCR was committed to continue establishing constructive working relationships with the Malaysian authorities and various civil society groups to address the challenging issues faced by the refugees and asylum-seekers in the country.
One of the pressing issues is the illegal status of the refugees who, as such, are not allowed to seek employment to support themselves.
"This drives many into exploitative and sometimes dangerous, unlawful work," said Towle, adding that the UNHCR "strongly believes" that implementing a better system for registering refugees and giving them the right to work in the country would remove them from the clutches of exploitation and criminality and provide humanitarian protection to those most in need.
"It will also satisfy the legitimate concerns of the government about security, law and order. This is a win-win situation for the government, the people of Malaysia and the refugees.
"Malaysia can put into place policies and regulations to manage the unique situation of refugees in this country without signing the 1951 Refugee Convention," he told Bernama in an interview recently.
Return to country of origin
On Malaysia's reluctance to be burdened with the refugee problem, Towle said until long-term solutions could be found for them, refugees needed the compassion and understanding of Malaysians to help them while they were in the country.
"Of course, the best solution for the vast majority of them is to be able to return home when it's safe for them to do so. Often, a refugee's most fervent desire is to return home again. But this is not always possible," he said.
Towle said while resettlement was available for some refugees who could not return home or stay in the host country, it was not a right or an automatic solution for all refugees.
"It's an option available only to less than one per cent of the total refugee population worldwide, based on the availability of places offered by third countries and for those with the highest level of vulnerability," he explained.
On the security threats posed by refugees who possess fake UNHCR documents, Towle said all UNHCR document-holders would have their biodata and contact particulars recorded with the agency.
The agency also regularly reviewed and strengthened the safety features of its documents in order to minimise the production of fraudulent cards, and also to ensure that law enforcement agencies could verify the cards more efficiently.
"It's important that only those requiring genuine protection get our assistance," he added.
Malaysians compassionate by nature
Towle ( photo ), meanwhile, heaped praises on Malaysians who, he said, were mostly generous and compassionate.
"We encounter so many groups and individuals who volunteer their time to help improve refugees' lives in the country. Malaysians can understand that refugees are ordinary people who have faced extraordinary circumstances, like armed conflict and human rights abuses, which have forced them to flee their countries.
"What they need is a temporary safe space where they can rebuild their lives in dignity until such time that they can return home safely," he said.
Towle added that the UNHCR ran a vounteer programme where people could assist refugees in areas such as teaching, skills-building and organising sports or recreational activities.