Stop targeting refugees, migrants and their defenders

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TIM TEBOW FOUNDATION/UNSPLASH

The Women’s Aid Organisation condemns the inhumane treatment of vulnerable migrants and refugees as well as the use of intimidation tactics to silence human rights defenders.

The recent charges made against activist Heidy Quah for speaking out on poor conditions in immigration detention centres is a clear violation of her right to freedom of expression. In the face of a worsening pandemic, the authorities should be focused on assisting and aiding vulnerable groups, organisations and individuals who tirelessly provide services.

Over the past year, there have been many reports of raids on migrant communities, exposing them to Covid and jeopardising their safety. In a raid reported in May 2020, hundreds, including children, were arrested in a Covid red zone. In February of this year, the government sent back 1,086 people to military-controlled Myanmar, defying a court order temporarily stopping deportation. This is a clear violation of human rights and the principle of non-refoulement, to which all nations – including Malaysia – are bound, regardless of the fact that we are not party to the 1951 Refugee Convention.

Accounts on the conditions of detention centres present a myriad of dangers – including heightened risks of Covid transmission, as well as mental and emotional distress. Beyond these, women and children also face the risk of sexual and gender-based violence, lack of access to adequate hygiene facilities and products, and clean water – particularly for pregnant women and their unborn children, as these unsanitary conditions may be long-lasting or fatal.

Women and girls are more vulnerable to sexual exploitation and human trafficking in these conditions. As per the recommendations of the Cedaw Committee, mechanisms in place for effective and transparent investigations of complaints and adequate prosecution of perpetrators are essential to ensure justice for victims of gender-based violence in detention.

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In light of this, allegations that the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, is being denied access to meet refugees and asylum seekers, detained during the pandemic and left without access to justice and exposed to infection, are deeply concerning. Often enough, migrants and refugee communities are unable to voice the violations faced, for fear of arrest and deportation. This is why human rights defenders and organisations must be allowed to speak out without threat or harm.

As such, the WAO stands in support of Heidy, an activist who has faced similar charges and questioning in the past. We also stand with all refugees, migrants, asylum seekers and defenders who have experienced severe repercussions as a result of the Covid pandemic.

We call on the government to take prompt and proactive action on reports by activists and organisations to aid these communities. The authorities must recognise the impact the pandemic response has had on the livelihoods, health, and safety of refugees, migrants and asylum seekers and promptly implement measures to improve these circumstances.

No one, especially already at-risk groups, should be disregarded amid a public health crisis.

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