Officials from the UN’s refugee agency have been recorded openly describing themselves as “thieves” for brokering the illegal trade of registration documents. Burmese refugees and asylum seekers are paying up to $1,000 (£650) for UNHCR cards granting them official refugee status in Malaysia, an undercover al-Jazeera investigation has found.

“All the money from this activity goes into the pockets of some top guys in the UN,” a UN translator claimed in al-Jazeera’s current affairs programme 101 East. “We have been doing this … for a long time. We are thieves, and we look for thieves above us.”

The programme’s presenter, Steve Chao, posed as a priest in order to visit squalid detention centres in Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur, where he interviewed dozens of refugees and asylum seekers, some of them Rohingya Muslims from Burma, for Malaysia’s Unwanted, which was aired this week. Interviewees said they faced police harassment and exploitation, were forbidden to work or send their children to school, and lived in abysmal conditions: some refugees were beaten, chained or handcuffed, and many had not had any food for days.

About 150,000 refugees and asylum seekers are living in Malaysia – nearly all of them hailing from Burma – but because Malaysia is not party to the UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention or the 1967 protocol recognising refugees, they are extremely vulnerable to abuse and maltreatment by authorities, rights groups say. All UN high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR) services should normally be provided for free.

Malaysia was downgraded this year to the lowest rung on the US State Department’s human trafficking index, which highlighted the country’s poor human rights record and officials’ complicity in trafficking those held in detention camps.

Malaysia’s UNHCR mission – which sees more than 1,000 refugees and asylum seekers every day – is reportedly overwhelmed by the sheer number of those in need, with the leader of the mission, Richard Towle, comparing it to “an accident and emergency hospital”.

“You make tough decisions all the time about triaging and prioritising who is the neediest of the people in an already needy group of people,” he said.

A spokesperson for UNHCR Malaysia said the agency was aware of the claims and had a “zero-tolerance policy” regarding corruption. Resettlement operations were reportedly suspended earlier this year to investigate the claims.

“UNHCR is aware of some allegations of fraud arising from its operation in Malaysia,” said a UN spokeswoman, Yante Ismail. “These are beginning to be treated with the seriousness they require under the organisation’s rules and procedures.”

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