PSHTC: What common humanity?

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Sometimes 20, Sometimes 30 - It’s normal for refugees to live in small flats with up to 30 people, who may all be replaced the next week. For survival, they live wherever job opportunities take them - Photograph: UNHCR

The Penang Stop Human Trafficking Campaign has condemned the detention of refugees and asylum seekers outside the UNHCR offices in Kuala Lumpur.

We have news that the Malaysian authorities are conducting an operation against refugees and asylum seekers outside the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) offices in Kuala Lumpur.

Women, men and children have been rounded up since late last week and many detained.

This is very disturbing.

Refugees and asylum seekers have fled an intolerable situation in their homeland to seek safety, protection and refuge in a third country, in this instance Malaysia. Many of them will have survived a horrific journey out of their homeland, including being at the mercy of human traffickers and criminal syndicates.

Malaysians will recall the appalling ‘discovery’ of death camps on the Thailand-Malaysia border through which so many women, men and children fleeing their homeland have had to pass. Many did not and do not survive.

The Malaysian government has consistently refused to give these women, men and children any legal status, but has instead given UNHCR the responsibility for registering and looking after them while they are in this country.

Without any right to work, with no legal protection, and with limited chances for resettlement, refugees and asylum seekers struggle to survive in our country. Their children have no right to education; their access to healthcare is limited by fear of arrest and by the high fees; they are hugely vulnerable to exploiters of many kinds; time and again it has been documented that they face constant harassment, extortion, fraudsters, modern day slavers, and worse.

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It was not so long ago that our prime minister, when talking about refugees, told the world that we must all respect “our common humanity” and “transcend the silos of race and faith” and “see not strangers, but our brothers and sisters”.

“People around the world cry out for our help. We cannot, we must not, pass on by,” he said.

Yet for the thousands of refugees from nearby Myanmar/Burma and other countries who have come to Malaysia for refuge, these words remain irrelevant. Instead, these innocent people are constantly being harassed, rounded up and thrown into detention camps.

Why? What crime have these women, children and men committed, other than to hope for protection and safety from us? Is it not the traffickers and people smugglers, the extorters, the murderers, and rapists and xenophobes who should be brought to justice, not the survivors/victims of such crimes?

It is doubly worrying that the detentions and intimidation is being carried out in front of the very offices, the UNHCR, which for refugees and asylum seekers is the one place where there is hope of protection.

What message are the Malaysian authorities trying to send? That we in Malaysia do not want refugees and asylum seekers to have any hope? That we are content that they are thrown into detention camps irrespective of their histories of persecution, their present awful predicament, and their complete lack of protection? Where do we expect them to go and what do we expect them to do? What are we trying to prove?

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It is also sad that these operations seem to happen regularly at the time of public holidays, meaning that there will be little news available on the fate of those rounded up until days later. This obviously causes unnecessary suffering and anxiety for the families and friends of those rounded up. Is this also something that the Malaysian authorities are happy to inflict?

We call upon the Malaysian authorities to stop the arrest and detention of refugees and asylum seekers and to release those detained.

We call upon the Malaysian authorities to conduct a thorough review of the policies presently in place with regard to refugees and asylum seekers, with a view to granting them legal status that will ensure as a minimum their basic protection and safety.

And we urge the Malaysian authorities to instead relentlessly pursue the real criminals: the human traffickers, people smugglers, rapists, murderers, xenophobes and racists who prey on the vulnerable and exploit them for profit or gratification.

This would indicate our commitment to “our brothers and sisters”, “our common humanity”. Not the gratuitous detention of the innocent and unprotected.

10 February 2016

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