MAY 20 — As I stepped into Malaysia’s Lenggeng detention centre, I saw rows and rows of emaciated men crammed into a cage smaller than a tennis court. Nearby, women and children were also being held in a tiny cell, 24 hours a day, no bedding, nothing.
Standing there amid the stench of poor sanitation and steamy tropical heat, I could never have imagined that within months these centres would be hailed as the new “humane and safe” solution to Australia’s so-called asylum-seeker crisis.
I was there to help research an Amnesty International report, “Abused and Abandoned: Refugees Denied Rights in Malaysia”. We found people with skin infections and communicable diseases spread by rat urine, already responsible for deaths in the centres. We also documented the fact 6000 face judicial caning every year for immigration offences. This is no minor punishment, as the canes travel up to 160km/h, ripping into flesh and leaving deep scars.
More than 90,000 refugees live in Malaysia, the vast majority of them in the community. They live in constant fear of arrest or extortion, as they have no legal status under Malaysian law.
Despite some recent improvements, several top officials effectively maintain that refugees do not exist in the country.
In a 2009 interview, the secretary-general for the Ministry of Home Affairs, Datuk Mahmood bin Adam, was asked by Amnesty International what would happen if someone arrived at the airport and claimed asylum.
He replied: “He will be refused entry. We have not signed the refugee protocol.”
The fear refugees face in the community is very real, with even those already recognised as refugees frequently rounded up by a state-sanctioned militia group known as RELA.
Amnesty International’s report contains several disturbing accounts of refugees with UN High Commissioner for Refugees cards being detained.
A Rohingya man from Burma told Amnesty International last year: “I spent five months in detention even though I had a UNHCR card. I was beaten by RELA in front of the others.”
A Rohingya woman told us: “They beat me badly in detention. It was the police. I am a diabetic but when I asked for medicine they beat me badly. My children approached UNHCR to get me out but no response.”
The report concludes: “For those refugees and asylum-seekers who are forced to flee their homelands in search of protection, Malaysia is an unwelcoming and dangerous place.”
While the Australian federal government has stated that the 800 sent to Malaysia will
not be treated any differently as other refugees and asylum-seekers there, they also insist that Malaysia has promised to treat them with “dignity and respect”. But how is this possible given the scale of abuses documented there, and the fact Malaysia is not a signatory to the UN refugee convention?
The Australian government has failed to clarify how this guarantee would be
carried out in practice in a developing country already overwhelmed by more than one million illegal migrant workers in addition to the tens of thousands of refugees and asylum-seekers.
Again, Malaysian law makes no distinction.
It raises the question, what visa will the 800 be given to enter the country? A tourist visa? Or are they being sent to be “illegal”, in breach of Malaysia’s own migration laws?
Also, what level of force is Australia prepared to use to make people go to Malaysia? What lessons did Australia learn from the Oceanic Viking experience?
Amnesty International has welcomed the move to take 4000 refugees from
Malaysia. However, this should not be done for political reasons, and at the expense of those coming to seek asylum on Australian shores.
Linking the resettlement of refugees from Malaysia to a domestic political solution undermines the fundamental right to seek asylum for those fleeing persecution, as well as the targeted role resettlement should play in refugee protection.
As a signatory to the convention and as a Western country that receives a tiny proportion of the world’s asylum claims, Australia should be setting a good example to the region by processing requests in accordance with our international obligations.
What is particularly concerning about this “five for one” deal is that the asylum-seekers we send to Malaysia are likely to stand out, making them an easy target. Most refugees in Malaysia are Burmese, while the people we send there are likely to be from Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan.
These highly visible groups will struggle to blend into the community and avoid being subjected to abuses by RELA agents or government officials, such as caning, beatings or extortion.
By disregarding these very real dangers, the government is playing politics with the lives of some of the world’s most vulnerable people: people who are fleeing persecution and who came here to ask for our help.
At best, they face living in limbo for many years.
At worst, they face beatings and disease-ridden camps — or even death.
There are already more than 100 recent arrivals awaiting deportation on Christmas Island. Amnesty International notes that the government has refused to detail any exceptions to the new policy for children, the sick or the elderly.
Under the UN refugee convention, Australia is responsible for these people. The government needs to explain just what will happen to them. — The Australian
* Graham Thom is Amnesty International’s refugee spokesman
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication. The Malaysian Insider does not endorse the view unless specified.