Monday, June 21, 2010

20 June 2010-World Refugee Day

20 June 2010 marked the World Refugee Day hence the FB status written on the day:-

"is commemorating World Refugee Day and pondering upon how the principle of refugee law was beautifully established during the Prophet's time when the Medinans gave due protection to the Prophet against persecution by the Quraisy of Mecca"

I believe that it corresponds well with my never ending thoughts on why we always pick and choose issues we want to fight for, more often than not we forget that the issue of refugees is never alien to us.

Eric's article couldn't be more accurate in explaining the problem refugees face, right here in our own country.


When can Malaysia commemorate World Refugee Day?

It was indeed heartening to see the whole world including the Malaysian government and the unanimous Parliament condemning (the US government of course supported Israel) the Israeli forces atrocity against the international aid flotilla bound for Israeli-occupied Gaza, which led to the murder of nine Turkish activists onboard. While the Palestinians’ struggle for liberation, a homeland and a dignified life certainly deserves all the international aid, support, solidarity and more – we must not however turn a blind eye to those with similar or even worse plight than the Palestinians when there are refugees right here in our country.

Refugee is defined as people who are unable to return to their home countries due to fear of persecution, war or conflict (as currently unraveling in Kyrgyzstan), and therefore they are entitled under international law to protection and assistance. The Palestinians make up a substantial number – 4.8 million refugees from the total 15.2 million refugees worldwide as of end 2009, according to UNHCR, the UN refugee agency. (Note however that the overall total of those forcibly displaced i.e. refugees, asylum seekers and conflict-generated internally displaced persons (IDPs) are estimated at 43.3 million persons, the highest number since the mid-1990s).

In fact there are also quite a few refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia – numbering at an estimated 90,000 persons according to UNHCR. This number is small compared to Pakistan, hosting 1.7 million refugees; Iran: 1.1 million; Syria: 1.05 million; and Germany: 593,800. As of January 2009, only 36,671 refugees and 9,323 asylum seekers were registered with UNHCR in Malaysia. This registration only affords them a small measure of protection as the government does not generally recognise refugees but instead treat them like any other “illegal” migrant present in the country.

The large majority, some 90 percent are from Burma, mainly ethnic Chin and Rohingya/ Burmese Muslim although there are also sizable number of Karen, Karenni, Kachin, Shan, Mon and Bama refugees and asylum seekers. This should not come as a surprise as the Burmese military junta since seizing power in 1988 has continued to systematically persecute political dissidents and ethnic minorities with arbitrary arrest, detention, torture and even causing deaths, forced labour and portering, forced relocation, land and property seizures, restricted movement and numerous other discriminatory policies.

Come 20 June, come another World Refugee Day with little or no improvement to the lives of refugees in Malaysia. Refugees including those from Sri Lanka, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan and occupied Palestine, are still treated as undocumented migrants and subjected to the same harsh immigration laws and policies that include arrest, detention, criminal prosecution, fine, jail, whipping and deportation.

Without government documentation, they are unable to work legally and live in perpetual fear of raids, arrest, harassment and extortion by the police, RELA and the immigration authorities. Consequently, they live in the margins of society, constantly in hiding and living in poverty. They have to scrape together whatever they can find, living day to day in order to feed, clothe and provide shelter for themselves and their families.

When arrested, irrespective of whether they are men, women or children, they will be taken away from their families and friends, will be detained at our infamous detention centres for several months (sometimes even years) before being charged, jailed, whipped (men only) and deported, mainly to the Thai border – only to find themselves sold to human traffickers.

In May and September 2009, two and six Burmese detainees respectively died in two separate detention centres due to Leptospirosis, an infectious disease caused by water or food contaminated with animal urine. This should not be read as isolated incidents as detention death is an everyday reality. Typically, detention conditions are deplorable and inhumane – overcrowding, sweltering, lack 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 for places of detention. Serious abuse by detention centre staff is also common including arbitrary beatings.

Then Home Minister Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar reported to Parliament that between 1999 and 2008, there were 2,571 detainee deaths in prisons, rehabilitation centres and immigration detention centres (He attributes these deaths to illnesses, fights and suicides and therefore OK). In December 2008, former SUHAKAM Commissioner Datuk Siva Subramaniam said 1,300 foreigners died in detention during the past six years due to lack of medical treatment and neglect.

Are we therefore surprised that Malaysia has been consistently ranked by the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI) in its annual World Refugee Survey, including in 2009, as one of the ten worst places for refugees? What about when the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations reported in 2009, that during deportations over the past few years, thousands of undocumented Burmese migrants were sold to human traffickers in Thailand, and forced to work in brothels, plantations and fishing trawlers if they were unable to purchase their own release?

How can we be blind to this serious ill-treatment of foreigners including refugees at our own doorsteps when we can see and act on the injustice perpetrated on the Palestinians many thousand miles away?

Can we be principled and take human rights including refugee protection seriously and consistently? Refugees irrespective of their nationality (religion, ethnicity, political opinion etc) must be afforded international protection and we cannot pick and choose who we want to assist and who we want to abuse, detain or deport.

Refugees are real people with real needs. At the very minimum, they need clean water, food, sanitation, shelter, health care and protection from violence and abuse. Can we not provide that? Can we not help them so they have a chance to rebuild their lives, and hopefully one day return to their home countries as preferred by most refugees?

The answer is “yes,” as even our normally unsympathetic government is capable of surprise. You might be astonished to learn that after the December 2004 tsunami in Acheh, the government on humanitarian ground issued the IMM13 work and residence permit to some 30,000 Achehnese who were then seeking refuge in Malaysia. The temporary protection ended in 2008 following the success of the peace accord in Acheh.

But most of time, the government’s answer is “no”. The long residing Rohingyas/ Burmese Muslims (many have been here since the late 1980s and 1990s) were also supposed to be issued with the IMM13 permit in August 2006. But after some allegations of fraud and corruption, the Home Ministry suspended the scheme. Approximately 5,000 Rohingyas had by then registered with the Immigration Department where they paid RM90.00 registration fee but no IMM13 permits were issued.

The government has so far refused to sign the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (144 countries have signed up) i.e. the key UN legal document that defines who is a refugee, their rights and legal obligation of state parties. Malaysia’s refusal to sign the Refugee Convention should not however absolve them from not recognising refugees as a special category of vulnerable persons in need of temporary protection as it is bound by other international human rights laws and standards including customary international law that prohibits refoulement (forced expulsion) and torture.

If Malaysia wants to be taken seriously when speaking on human rights issues, more so after its recent re-election to the UN Human Rights Council, it must act consistently for the protection and respect for all human rights wherever they occur – whether in Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq, Burma or in our very own country.

Instead of mistreating refugees, the government should provide them with documentation, basic humanitarian assistance, access to social services, a chance to work and educate their children, so that they can lead a semblance of a dignified life while they are in our country. And when the time comes, they are able to return to their home countries or resettled in third countries, hopefully in a better condition than they were when they first arrived.

In February 2010, Home Ministry Secretary General Datuk Mahmood Adam announced government plans to issue identification cards to refugees recognised by UNHCR that would entitle them to stay temporarily in the country and perform odd jobs. This plan if implemented properly will be a landmark moment in refugee protection – and finally, a real reason for Malaysia to commemorate World Refugee Day.

Will this promise be kept?

Eric Paulsen is a member of Lawyers for Liberty, a newly formed human rights and law reform initiative.