Press Statement: APPEAL TO MALAYSIAN GOVERNMENT TO STOP THE CRACKDOWN ON REFUGEES.
6th August 2007
On 4th August 2007, more than 350 undocumented migrants were arrested by the Immigration Department and Rela during the Ops Tegas in Selayang and Gombak. Out of that number, about 100 of them are refugees from Myanmar who are registered with UNHCR, Malaysia.
Myanmar Ethnic Rohingyas Human Rights Organization Malaysia (MERHROM) was informed by the community members about the arrest at about 3.30am. Many of them could not escape as there are hundred of Rela officers involved during the operation. Later, we found out that they were taken to Lenggeng detention camp on the same day.
At about 8.00pm on 4th August 2007, MERHROM received another call from the community members about the Immigration and Rela operation in Subang. About 7 Rohingya refugees and many others were arrested.
On 5th August 2007, at about 3.30am again MERHROM received another call from the community members on the Immigration and Rela operation in Ampang and Taman Muda. Estimated about 200 undocumented migrants were arrested. Out of this number about 50 of them are Rohingya refugees consisting of men, women, pregnant women and children. They were registered with UNHCR.
During the operation, Mr. Habibur Rahman, the Secretary General of MERHROM and Mr. Harun, the Information Secretary of MERHROM were also arrested. Mr. Habibur Rahman managed to inform Mr. Zafar Ahmad, President of MERHROM that he was punched at his face and was hit at his thigh by 2 Rela officers.
Mr. Zafar Ahmad together with his wife and the Vice-President rushed to the Rela Office in Batu 10 Cheras to check on this matter. We reached the Rela office at 5.50am. The Rela officer told us that they received direction from the Minister to arrest all refugees. Another Rela officer told us that the UNHCR is already expired and had no power in Malaysia. We informed the officer that we want to speak to the head of Rela office. We were told to wait for Tuan Haji Musa, the head of Cheras Rela as he just left the office. While waiting, we asked permission to get the details of Rohingya refugees from the officer but it was denied.
We waited until 9.00am before we were chased out by the higher position of Rela officer. We were told that he is the advisor of Rela and holding Dato’ position. He told us not to wait for Tuan Haji Musa and told us to go. He asked us to deal with the Immigration and the detention camp. Mr. Zafar Ahmad replied that he will also discuss the matter with the
Immigration Department. Suddenly he got very angry, shouted at us and chase us out of the Rela premise. He directed his officer to chase us out immediately. One of his officer hold Mr. Zafar’s neck and chase him out. Mr. Zafar’s wife who stood beside him told the officer to remove his hand from Mr. Zafar’s neck. In anger he told Mr. Zafar “you think when you marry a Malaysian, you can say anything you want?”. We left the Rela office after the incident as we don’t want it to be worse.
This clearly show that refugees do not have rights to talk and claim their rights. This incident also show how arrogant Rela officers are. We left Rela office with lots of frustration. We were treated like persons without dignity just because we are refugees. There is no respect for the vulnerable people like us. We can’t talk about our rights. They told us to shut our mouth.
We were frustrated as Malaysia is a member of United Nations Human Rights Council but various human rights violations took place especially to the refugees and the migrant workers. The Malaysia government also signed CRC and CEDAW and the state have the responsibility to protect both children and women within its territory regardless of their status.
We also feel very sad as the Malaysia Prime Minister is very concerned about the Darfur refugees but he failed to do the same to the refugees who are really in vulnerable situation in Malaysia soil.
We urge the Malaysian government to immediately stop the Crackdown on refugees and give us chance to live. Every moment we live in fear. We had gone through enough pain and suffering in our life and we had nobody to turn to.
Mr. Zafar Ahmad
Myanmar Ethnic Rohingyas Human
Rights Organization Malaysia
Malaysia: Government Must Stop Abuse of Burmese Refugees and Asylum Seekers
23 May 2007 – Refugees International
Contacts: Camilla Olson and Kavita Shukla
email@example.com or 202.828.0110
Burmese refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia are facing increasing threats to their security. Starting in March 2005, the Government of Malaysia launched a nationwide operation targeting undocumented migrants in the country. This operation has led to serious human rights violations against Burmese in Malaysia, who the government classifies as illegal migrants rather than refugees or asylum seekers. Since early 2006 the situation in Malaysia has deteriorated with public statements made by the Home Affairs Minister and Immigration Department officials condoning the arrest of undocumented workers, including refugees, while immigration courts in detention centers mete out punishments that include caning. Burmese in Malaysia will continue to face abuses until the government recognizes the protection needs of the refugee population in its country.
There are approximately 40,000 persons of concern to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Malaysia. The majority of this group consists of ethnic minorities who fled Burma as a result of the violence and abuses carried out against them by the Burmese military junta. The most common abuses occurring in Burma and cited by the Burmese refugees interviewed by Refugees International on a recent mission to Malaysia were forced labor, arbitrary arrest, land confiscation, and the destruction of villages and homes.
Burmese in Malaysia face arrest, detention, and deportation. Malaysia has not signed the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol and the Government of Malaysia does not distinguish between refugees, asylum seekers, and illegal migrants. In the past, legal protection has been offered to specific groups of asylum seekers who the Government of Malaysia chooses to recognize. The most recent case is that of the Rohingya, an ethnic minority from Burma’s Northern Rakhine State. In 2004 the Government of Malaysia agreed to issue IMM13 work permits for the Rohingya. At least several thousand refugees were registered but no permits have been issued and the Rohingya continue to be vulnerable to arrest and abuse. It is imperative that the Government of Malaysia honor its earlier commitment and grant temporary work permits to the 12,000 Rohingya refugees.
The biggest perpetrator of abuses against the Burmese in Malaysia is the People’s Volunteer Corps or RELA. RELA is comprised of around half a million civilian volunteers who are authorized by the Government of Malaysia to arrest undocumented migrants in order to help maintain public order. Unlike the police, who are working to improve their treatment of refugees and asylum seekers through cooperation with international and local organizations, RELA uses extreme tactics, including paying volunteers for each undocumented migrant they arrest.
Burmese refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia cope with difficult living conditions. They have little access to basic services like health care. Without any documents, refugees and asylum seekers are not able to go to local hospitals because they will be arrested. Foreigners, including refugees and asylum seekers, pay double the hospital fees of local Malaysians. With a UNHCR registration letter, refugees are able to receive a 50 percent discount, but the medical cost is still prohibitive in most cases. Free clinics run by local NGOs periodically offer basic medical assistance to refugees without documents, but the clinics are minimally staffed and lack adequate funding to cover the cost of referrals for more serious cases.
The Malaysian authorities have long been harassing and intimidating Burmese refugees because many lack any type of documentation. Now even those refugees who are recognized by UNHCR and carry registration documents are being arrested by RELA and placed in detention centers. The refugees may be picked up on the street or captured in raids at night. Sometimes RELA even apprehends refugees on their way to church for prayer services. While the majority of Burmese who are arrested are men, women and children are also vulnerable. RI heard several reports of Burmese women going to register their newborn babies with local authorities and having both themselves and their children arrested and put into detention.
International agencies and local NGOs and community groups have difficulty accessing the detention centers where currently at least 700 refugees and asylum seekers are being held. After arrest the refugees are placed in detention where they are not allowed any visitors for fourteen days. The lack of access to the detention centers means that there is very little medical assistance or legal counsel available to the refugees. Several of the Burmese refugees who RI interviewed had been beaten or abused while in detention. The refugees are forced to stay in overcrowded rooms with hundreds of other detainees, some of whom are charged with criminal offences.
Given the dire detention conditions, after completing their sentence the refugees often agree to be deported by the immigration authorities to the Thai-Malay border, where they are picked up by smugglers and traffickers. The immigration officers who deport the refugees to the border witness the trafficking that takes place and may benefit from the fees, around 1500 MYR or 500 USD, paid by the refugees to the traffickers. If they are unable to pay for their release, the refugees are sold into forced labor, most commonly on Thai fishing boats. One Burmese Rakhine refugee interviewed by RI had been deported three separate times and each time spent several months working on a fishing boat where he witnessed severe human rights abuses, such as other Burmese workers being shot or stabbed and thrown overboard.
The majority of the Burmese refugees in Malaysia are believed to be living in or around Kuala Lumpur. Some stay in urban areas where as many as 20 refugees share a one-room apartment, while others live in jungle sites situated near plantations. RI visited a group of Burmese Mon, including minors, at a jungle site near Penang. Police and RELA had been raiding it several times each month. On one recent raid, the police set fire to the refugees’ shelters.
Despite such difficulties, many of the refugees are fearful of leaving their hiding places in the jungle because they lack any type of documents. They are dependent on their employers for food and are normally paid half of what local workers make. It is difficult for these refugees to access basic services like health care. For the most serious medical cases, the refugees must travel four hours south to Kuala Lumpur since mobile clinics and mobile registration do not reach far outside of the capital and many local hospitals do not recognize UNHCR documents.
UNHCR is the sole provider of protection to refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia, and along with a few local NGOs it is at the frontline of providing assistance to the Burmese. For the past several years, UNHCR’s resources have been limited and the agency continues to deal with processing a large backlog of cases. UNHCR is not able to register any new refugees except for the most vulnerable. Even pregnant women must wait until their seventh month for UNHCR to issue a registration letter that will enable them to give birth in a local hospital without being arrested. Some local NGOs and community groups provide assistance such as health care and education to the Burmese refugees, but funding shortages are a constant issue.
The Government of Malaysia, in particular the Immigration Department and the Ministry of Home Affairs, has publicly targeted UNHCR, claiming that the agency is creating a pull factor for refugees. Despite this criticism, UNHCR is playing an important role in taking the burden from the government by registering, interviewing, documenting, assisting, and referring refugees for resettlement.
In 2007, several thousand of the approximately 20,000 Burmese Chin in Malaysia, who are primarily Christian, will be resettled to the United States. Other resettlement countries are also engaged, albeit in smaller numbers. In addition to the Chin, it is estimated that there are more than 20,000 unregistered ethnic Burmese in Malaysia who are in need of protection and for whom third country resettlement may be the only solution. However, fewer numbers of these ethnic Burmese are accepted for resettlement. There is growing resentment among the other ethnic Burmese groups, who fled Burma because of ongoing persecution and often face the same protection problems in Malaysia as the Chin, but who feel that their situation is not being recognized by resettlement countries.
Refugees International recommends:
The Government of Malaysia:
- Recognize the rights of the Burmese refugee population in the country and protect them from arrest, detention, and deportation.
- Disband RELA and train local authorities and police to respect UNHCR documents.
- Improve outside access to detention centers for medical assistance and legal representation, separate those with asylum claims from the general population, and cease handing out caning sentences to asylum seekers and refugees.
- Allow the International Committee of the Red Cross to visit prisons and monitor conditions, especially for those with asylum claims.
- Fulfill its commitment to provide work permits to the Rohingya refugees; any such process should be facilitated through UNHCR in order to ensure that there is accurate recognition of stateless individuals.
- Uphold its international commitments as a member of the UN Human Rights Council, and a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.
- Urge fellow ASEAN member Burma to stop persecuting and violating the rights of the Burmese people.
The Human Rights Commission of Malaysia:
- Undertake regular fact-finding trips to the detention centers and prisons to ensure that human rights abuses are not committed and that detention conditions meet international standards.
- Continue its work in protecting Burmese refugees and asylum seekers and expand its programs and registration services to refugees in outlying areas.
- Increase funding and support to UNHCR and local NGOs, particularly for mobile registration and mobile clinics to reach populations outside of the capital.
- Support local NGOs in building their advocacy and networking skills and educating the public about the difference between asylum seekers and migrants.
The United States and other countries:
- Increase resettlement of vulnerable ethnic Burmese groups in Malaysia in addition to the Chin.
Malaysia: Disband Abusive Volunteer Corps
Government Uses RELA Force on Migrant Workers
(New York, May 9, 2007) – The Malaysian government should immediately take steps to dissolve the People’s Volunteer Corps (Ikatan Relawan Rakyat or RELA), responsible for numerous cases of illegal detentions, unlawful use of force, and extortion, Human Rights Watch said today.
The Malaysian government has authorized almost half a million RELA volunteers to help maintain public order, primarily through the apprehension of undocumented migrant workers, most of whom come to Malaysia to augment Malaysia’s insufficient labor force. In carrying out their duties, RELA volunteers often employ unnecessary force and illegal policing practices. Fully uniformed, armed, and unaccompanied by police or immigration officers, they break into migrant lodgings in the middle of the night without warrants, brutalize inhabitants, extort money, and confiscate cell phones, clothing, jewelry, and household goods, before handcuffing migrants and transporting them to detention camps for “illegal immigrants.”
“The government has set up what’s little more than a vigilante force to target foreigners,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Given RELA’s repeated abuses, it should be disbanded right away.”
RELA members have failed to distinguish or deliberately ignored the distinctions between undocumented migrants, and refugees and asylum seekers. At other times, volunteers have refused to recognize a worker’s legitimate immigration status. In an effort to legitimatize their own behavior, the volunteers have been known to deliberately destroy identification cards proving a worker’s right to be in Malaysia.
There have been many examples of unlawful behavior by RELA. Cases from 2007 include:
- On April 5, RELA members arrested some 20 Burmese refugees and asylum seekers at a market in downtown Kuala Lumpur. At least five had been recognized as refugees by the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
- In late March, eight members of a RELA team removed belongings amounting to RM 1,800 (approximately US$525) from one dwelling. After police ascertained that at least two of those implicated had stolen before, the full team was detained on robbery charges.
- On March 8, a RELA officer detained an Indian immigrant with identification certifying his legal status. It took four days for the worker’s employer to obtain his release from a detention camp for illegal immigrants.
- On March 6 and 7, RELA volunteers, who had come to Kampung Berembang, a village near Kuala Lumpur, supposedly to hand out flyers related to court orders, instead helped a developer evict 50 families and tear down their houses. Several villagers were arrested. The demolition went ahead despite an injunction to desist until a scheduled hearing was held. By helping the developers, RELA volunteers engaged in activities – some were spotted operating bulldozers – well beyond their mandate. In addition, they used excessive force while doing so.
- On March 2, at 2:30 a.m., 10 RELA volunteers raided a factory in Jenjarom, Selangor state, injuring two Nepalese workers and detaining eight others.
- On January 28, a RELA raid in Kampung Sungai Merab, Denkil, resulted in the arbitrary arrest of 14 persons recognized by UNHCR as refugees.
“The Malaysian government fans xenophobia through its use of RELA,” said Adams. “By targeting all foreign migrants, Malaysia undermines its espoused pan-Asian ethic.”
According to the 2005 amendment to Malaysia’s Essential Regulations, part of Malaysia’s security legislation, RELA is allowed to arrest an individual or enter and search any premises, public or private, without a search or arrest warrant. The amendment also gives RELA volunteers the right to bear and use firearms, and to demand documents. All that is necessary is authorization to conduct a raid from certain RELA officials, including the director general and deputy director general of RELA and other RELA officers appointed by the home affairs minister.
The 2005 amendment also gives effective legal immunity to RELA volunteers. Regulation 16 of the act states: “The Public Protection Authorities Act 1948 shall apply to any action, suit, prosecution or proceedings against … RELA … or any member … in respect of any act, neglect or default done or committed by him in good faith or any omission omitted by him in good faith, in such capacity.”
In response to publicized abuses in April 2007, RELA headquarters issued a circular announcing that a raiding team leader would be responsible for conducting body searches on force members before and after raids to ensure they were abiding by the law. To make sure that volunteers do not steal or plant evidence, the team leader is instructed to check that volunteers are not carrying cell phones or weapons and only a limited amount of money. RELA officials have also responded to complaints by announcing new training procedures.
“RELA’s behavior has embarrassed the government into announcing some minor reforms,” said Adams. “But tinkering with raiding procedures or upgrading training will not get to the fundamental issue, which is that RELA should be disbanded. Malaysia has plenty of professional law enforcement bodies.”
According to Malaysia’s Home Ministry, the role of RELA, which dates back to 1972, is “to help maintain security in the country and the well-being of the people.” It is used as the eyes and ears of the government, to collect information for government agencies such as the police, customs, and immigration on threats to security, to do security patrolling to prevent crime, and, when necessary, to carry out citizens’ arrests. The 2005 amendment ceded more power to RELA by permitting it, “where it has reasonable belief that any person is a terrorist, undesirable person, illegal immigrant or an occupier, to stop that person in order to make all such inquiries or to require the production of all such documents or other things as the competent authority may consider necessary.” Malaysian government cannot ignore its commitment to refugee protection
|Thursday, 19 April 2007|
Amnesty International Malaysia is concerned about the recent discussions on refugees in Parliament and the comments by Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar on the rationale for not recognising refugees. This position clearly reflects the government’s lack of respect for human dignity and human rights.
As a member of international community and particularly the United Nations Human Rights Council the government must show a strong commitment in upholding the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights.
Malaysia is also a signatory to two United Nations treaties namely the Convention on the Rights of a Child (CRC) and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). The spirit of both the conventions is rooted in the goals of the United Nations to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights and in the dignity and worth of the human person.
The South East Asian region has its share of political and humanitarian crises and Malaysia, as a member state of Asean and as the proponent of the Asean Charte, cannot close its eyes to this reality and ignore its human rights and humanitarian commitments.
AI Malaysia is also concerned with the attitude of the Foreign Minister on the role of United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) in Malaysia. We reiterate our position that the UNHCR is a United Nations body here to assist the government in providing assistance and protection to asylum seekers and refugees in the spirit of international solidarity and burden sharing. The UNHCR is also an important partner for the government to work with since we have yet to ratify the 1951 Refugee Convention.
Refugees in Malaysia go through stringent test and screening before they qualify for protection. Such high standards are maintained by the UNHCR to ensure protection for genuine refugees. The protection accorded by UNHCR is termed as International Protection, in line with the function and mandate given to this body.
AI Malaysia would also like to remind the Malaysian government that refugee concerns are not merely a national concern but an international concern and therefore requires a more consolidated approach. Malaysia must therefore abide with the concept of international solidarity and burden-sharing in relation to refugees, that has been present since the inception of UNHCR in 1950.
It is therefore vital for the Malaysian government to support the work of UNHCR and other multilateral organizations in meeting the needs of the world’s most vulnerable people. This multilateral approach is a matter of principle that refugee assistance should be a shared, international responsibility.
It is also ironic that the government has blamed the UNHCR for the “flood” of refugees when it is known widely that Myanmar asylum seekers and refugees, who consist of a large portion of the refugees in this country, continue to flee human rights violations and persecution in their home country. Amnesty International has continued to document the detention of over 1,000 political prisoners and serious human rights violations against ethnic minority civilians, including forced labour by the military.
Until the Malaysian government works with ASEAN countries to resolve the political and human rights crisis in Myanmar, we will continue to see refugee flows into our country.
M’sia does not want to be a refugee magnet
Apr 17, 07 6:18pm
Malaysia will not officially recognise refugees for fears that the country would turn into a hub for political dissidents and illegal migrants in the region.
In view of this, the Foreign Ministry said it does not plan to ratify the United Nations (UN) Convention in relation to the Status of Refugees (1951) and Protocol (1967).
“The government is of the opinion that if Malaysia becomes party to the Convention, considering its strategic geographical location in the region, it would be a drawing factor for refugees to come to Malaysia,” the ministry’s parliamentary secretary Shabery Cheek told the Dewan Rakyat today.
He was replying to Dr Junaidy Abd Wahab (BN-Batu Pahat) who asked if Malaysia plans to ratify all the UN conventions concerning human rights, in addition to the convention concerning refugees.
Malaysian is party to two of UN’s seven conventions that cover human rights; the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. The conventions were ratified in 1995.
Shabery said despite the non-ratification, the government has intervened on several occasions.
“The government has given help to parties according to a case by case basis on humanitarian grounds. It is just not done on the whole,” he added.
However, he did not rule out the possibility of Malaysia reconsidering its position in the future
“… the Foreign Ministry has and is studying several of the main treaties, towards the participation of those treaties without bringing harm to the sovereignty and security of the country and at the same time will not compromise the policies and cultural characteristics of the nation,” he said.
Shabery said the Foreign Ministry and the Home Ministry have co-operated with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) concerning refugees in the country.
“It creates several problems in terms of our image because we are perceived to be late in ratifying several of the conventions … however there are countries that have ratified the conventions, including many in Africa, that have questionable human rights records,” he added.
He said that several cultural aspects might slow the country in ratifying the conventions.
“There are several reasons, related to our laws for example. Are we ready to discard them?
“Some aspects that have to do with our Federal Constitution, such as the special rights of the Malays, do we want to do away with them? These are the factors that we feel slows the process of ratifying all the conventions,” he added.