Rohingya refugees

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There will be nothing for Rohingya refugees to celebrate this year on World Refugees Day. Their hope of obtaining temporary settlement in Malaysia under the IMM13 special pass was squelched by the government about a year ago.

It had taken the government nearly four years to implement the positive measure to grant Rohingya refugees and asylum seekers registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) the IMM13 status. This status would have facilitated their legal employment and provided access to education for their children.

The granting of Ids to the Rohingya became government policy in 2003 – but remained unimplemented by the Immigration authorities under the Home Affairs Ministry for nearly two years. In November 2004, Malaysiakini reported the announcement to implement the policy by Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Mohd. Nazri Abdul Aziz in a meeting with the UNHCR’s Representative in Kuala Lumpur, Dr Volker Turk.

Despite this public announcement and the UNHCR’s positive response welcoming the move, actual implementation of the measure took two more years to be activated. On 1 August 2006 the process was finally implemented but was frustrated less than two weeks later amid accusations of fraud, bribery and corruption by certain parties involved in the registration process, according to Malaysiakini.

It is surprising that the UNHCR’s offer of assistance in implementing the registration process was not taken up by the Immigration authorities, making the resulting chaos an unsurprising consequence of bad management of a potentially manageable procedure. Since the stoppage of the registration, it appears that the whole process has been dismantled and left in that state. The Prime Minister’s Department, the Home Affairs Ministry of Home Affairs, the Immigration authorities and the Foreign Ministry have made no apparent effort to resolve the dilemma the Rohingya refugees are in.

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Rohingya and other refugees remain vulnerable to arrest and detention by Rela who are under the direction of the Immigration authorities and the Home Affairs Ministry, which do not acknowledge or recognise UNHCR documentation – contradicting the policy adopted by the Police to afford recognition of UNHCR documentation. This discrepancy leaves some 4,000 Rohingya refugees who had actually paid (and hold receipts for) the RM90 fee to be registered as IMM13 ID holders in a hopeless dilemma.

The Rohingya are Muslim citizens of Burma/Myanmar, persecuted and disowned by their country of origin, leaving them in a situation of “statelessness”. As their place of origin is along the Burma/Myanmar-Bangladesh border, many now live in Bangladesh but have not been granted Bangladesh citizenship – and a fraction of the number there moved to Malaysia.

Despite the goodwill the UNCHR has shown in helping to sort out the current mess and chaos of the illegal migration problem Malaysia currently faces, the government has acted in a churlish and resistant manner towards the UN refugee agency. In the past few months, government press statements seem to have emphasised a policy of non-cooperation with the UNHCR in apparent fear of opening the floodgates to Rohingya migration to Malaysia.

This may be understandable to some extent, as estimates show about 12,000 Rohingya in Malaysia, some of whom are said to have resided here for more than 10 years. But the government has made very little effort to find a constructive solution to the problem.

If the government is sincere in trying to resolve the Rohingya problem, it should step up political negotiations within Asean to bring about democratic change in Burma/Myanmar or establish proper systematic immigration controls in Malaysia to regulate incoming migrant labour. It should also work with the UNHCR to manage refugee entry into the country instead of resorting to arrest and detention of all undocumented migrants including refugees and asylum seekers, who are protected persons under international law.

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The measures the government has adopted so far, including the use of Rela to curb illegal migration, have proven futile to stem the influx of undocumented migrants into the country. The unprofessional and gangster-like behaviour of Rela personnel, causing much public and NGO concern over reported human rights violations, has tarnished Malaysia’s reputation in the international community. Immigration authorities and the Home Affairs Minister nonetheless remain adamant that Rela is a legitimate security force to use against migrants and refugees.

The recent blacklisting of the country for human trafficking seems to have hardened Malaysian authorities into adopting a belligerent attitude towards the international community instead of sparking a determination to eliminate corruption at the root of such evil. The Prime Minister, in a recent reply to the United States government on the blacklisting, proudly held up newly passed anti-trafficking legislation. The effectiveness and efficient enforcement of this law remains to be seen.

Aliran would like to remind the government on this year’s World Refugees Day that the Rohingya dilemma will not disappear simply by ignoring it or by using Rela, which has only served to embarrass and diminish Malaysia’s reputation as a multi-racially tolerant society in the world community. We urge the government to re-institute registration of Rohingya refugees under IMM13 as it has done for some of the Achenese and Filipino refugees in Peninsular Malaysia and in Sabah and Sarawak.

We condemn all forms of human rights violations perpetrated by Rela and those that occur in detention centres around the country particularly involving the arbitrary arrest and detention of pregnant refugee women and children in sub-human conditions, lacking basic health care facilities.

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Aliran supports the Bar Council’s call for the abolition of Rela. Its role as a security force is seen as currently redundant as the country is not in a state of emergency.

We also condemn the sentencing of immigration detainees, without legal representation, to whipping and prolonged detention by immigration courts set up within the premises of immigration detention centres. This is in violation of natural justice.

Aliran urges the Home Affairs Ministry and Immigration authorities to eliminate all forms of human rights abuses and adopt a positive and proactive attitude towards the UNHCR’s work. The Ministry and Immigration authorities should lend support and assistance to the UNHCR’s efforts to establish proper management of refugees instead of disrupting a proven and well established internationally recognised process. The government should cooperate with the UNHCR to formulate a proper system of immigration controls and a policy that respects and promotes human rights and supports the protection of refugees, asylum seekers and all other vulnerable migrants.

Aliran reminds the government again that Malaysia, as a member of the UN Human Rights Council and the United Nations, is obligated to support and promote human rights under international law and the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (Cedaw) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which Malaysia has ratified. As a member of the UN Human Rights Council, the Malaysian government should stop embarrassing the people and the nation.

Aliran continues to urge the government to ratify the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol as well as other international human rights conventions that have not yet been ratified. This is an obligation if you sit on the Human Rights Council.

Aliran Executive Committee

World Refugees Day, 20 June 2007

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