Malaysia

Malaysia-Australia refugee deal sparks local concerns

By Clara Chooi
May 09, 2011

Police officers watch as Myanmar refugees gather in a huddle at a holding camp in Lenggeng, Negri Sembilan, April 21, 2008. — Reuters picPolice officers watch as Myanmar refugees gather in a huddle at a holding camp in Lenggeng, Negri Sembilan, April 21, 2008. — Reuters picKUALA LUMPUR, May 9 — Malaysia’s refugee deal with Australia has drawn harsh criticism from local leaders and pressure groups here, who claimed today the agreement is in violation of asylum seekers’ right not to be forcibly deported.

Human rights group Lawyers for Liberty also voiced fears that Australia’s bid to “outsource” its international obligation to protect refugees would subject the asylum seekers to mistreatment in Malaysia’s reputedly ill-kept refugee camps.

The group added that as a signatory to the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention, Australia had no right to forcibly deport the asylum seekers to Malaysia, which has been dubbed “one of the world’s worst places for refugees to be in”.

“Let there be no doubt: Malaysia has a horrendous track record — infamous for its ill and brutal treatment of refugees and other undocumented migrants,” said the group in a statement today.

It added that as Malaysia has not ratified the UN refugee convention and does not have a comprehensive framework for the protection of refugees, the transfer deal with Australia would likely violate the asylum seekers’ rights “not to be [forcibly] deported, right to life, liberty and security of the person and the right to freedom from torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment”.

“In Malaysia, refugees and asylum seekers are still treated as undocumented migrants and subjected to harsh immigration laws and policies,” said the group.

It added that without travel documents, the asylum seekers were unable to obtain legal work permits and lived in perpetual fear of raids, arrest and harassment.

“Consequently, they live in the margins of society, constantly in hiding and living in poverty.

“When arrested they are detained at detention centres for several months (sometimes even years) before being charged, jailed, whipped (men only) and deported, mainly to the Thai border — and some find themselves sold to human traffickers,” the group claimed.

It revealed that in May and September 2009, eight Burmese detainees had died in two detention centres due to Leptospirosis, an infectious disease caused by water or food contaminated with animal urine.

“Detention conditions are deplorable and inhumane — overcrowding, sweltering, lack [of] bedding, poor hygiene and sanitation, insufficient and poor quality food, irregular access to clean water and medical treatment, all of which fall far short of minimum international standards.

“Serious abuse by detention centre staff is also common, including arbitrary beatings,” claimed the group.

It also cited figures from former home minister Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar in Parliament that there were 2,571 detainee deaths in prisons, rehabilitation centres and immigration centres between 1999 and 2008.

In December 2008, former Suhakam Commissioner Datuk Siva Subramaniam also said that 1,300 foreigners died in detention in the previous six years due to lack of medical treatment and neglect.

Malaysia and Australia struck a bilateral agreement on Saturday, allowing the transfer of up to 800 asylum seekers or “boat people” who have reached Australian shores “irregularly by sea” to Malaysia while their asylum claims are being processed by the UNHCR.

In return, Australia will resettle 4,000 refugees currently residing in Malaysia, many of whom reportedly fled Myanmar.

Today, DAP MP for Bukit Bendera Liew Chin Tong also criticised the agreement, saying that by serving as Australia’s refugee outpost, Malaysia was allowing itself to become the nation’s “backyard”.

Australia Prime Minister Julia Gillard, he said, had mooted the idea of setting up a regional detention centre in East Timor last year but the plan was snubbed.

Presently, the Australian government is in talks with Papua New Guinea to set up a similar establishment, he added.

“Conveniently, all these countries (including Malaysia) are not signatories to the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, while Australia is.

“It is disappointing that Malaysia, which used to pride itself as a regional opinion leader and a leader in the Muslim world, is entering into such a inhumane deal for monetary rewards of about RM1 billion,” said Liew.

The agreement, he added, meant that Malaysia was assisting the Australian government to treat refugees like “tradable goods”.

Liew also pointed to Malaysia’ approval to Australian miner Lynas Corp to set up a rare earths refinery in Gebeng, Kuantan, noting that this was another example of the country allowing itself to be Australia’s “dumpsite”.

“I call on Prime Minister Datuuk Seri Najib Razak to rescind the deal and handle Malaysia-Australian relations on the basis of equal partnership and dignity,” he said.