Australian plan worries refugee advocates

Many of the 94,300 registered asylum seekers and refugees in Malaysia live on the margins of society

But the police told him the Malaysian government did not recognise refugees, he said, and handcuffed him and took him to a dark street, where they demanded that he give them money or face arrest as an illegal immigrant.

In his five years here, he estimates he has been stopped by the police a dozen times and each time been forced to give them money. Now Sai Khem, 31, is undergoing security checks for possible resettlement in the United States. “If I can go, I’ll be happy,” he said, “because then I won’t have to be afraid of the authorities.”

Refugee advocates say harassment of the sort Sai Khem has experienced is not uncommon. And they warn that similarly harsh treatment may await the hundreds of migrants who could be headed to Malaysia under a recent agreement with Australia.

The agreement, announced on May 7, is the latest in a string of attempts by successive governments in Australia to deter the thousands of people who travel illegally to its shores each year. These efforts have included intercepting boatloads of migrants en route to Australia and taking them to detention centres on small Pacific islands, as well as a proposal to set up a regional processing centre in East Timor, a suggestion that country rejected.

Under the new agreement, Australia would send 800 migrants to Malaysia to have their asylum claims processed. In return, Australia says, over the next four years it would accept 4,000 people whom the United Nations has already certified as refugees in Malaysia.

The plan, which is expected to be completed in the coming weeks, has been criticised by refugee advocates and by opposition parties in Australia. They point out that Malaysia has never signed the UN refugee convention and that, while it permits the UN to process migrants who request asylum, it bars even UN-certified refugees from settling in the country permanently.

Many of the 94,300 registered asylum seekers and refugees in Malaysia live on the margins of society, prohibited from seeking jobs or sending their children to local schools.  Some subsist in cramped quarters for years awaiting resettlement in another country.

Last week, the UN high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, said Australia, which is a party to the refugee convention, should process asylum applications on its own soil, rather than transport migrants to a country that is party to neither the refugee convention nor the UN Convention Against Torture. The Australian Senate recently passed a motion by the Greens party calling on the government to abandon the new plan on the grounds that migrants could face abuse in Malaysia.

“Australia runs the real risk of flagrant violation of its obligations under the refugee convention, which at their heart require Australia to not expel anyone from its shores to a situation where they could be placed in danger,” said David Manne, executive director of the Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre in Melbourne. “Malaysia is a country that has an appalling track record in systematically abusing and mistreating asylum seekers.”

Irene Fernandez, executive director of Tenaganita, a Kuala Lumpur-based support group for migrants, accused Australia of ‘washing its hands’ of its responsibilities under the convention. “Australia is trying to pass the buck in a form of outsourcing to Malaysia,” she said.

But Australia’s Prime Minister Julia Gillard, has said, “It will be a big blow to those who are involved in the evil trade of people smuggling.” Under the agreement, 800 asylum seekers who have arrived in Australia by boat would be taken to Malaysia for assessment by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, in what the Australian government describes as a ‘one-off pilot project.’

It is estimated that the project will cost 292 million Australian dollars, or $308 million, including the expense of resettling the 4,000 certified refugees from Malaysia in Australia.
Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak says the asylum seekers sent by Australia will be treated humanely.

Certified refugees

Yante Ismail, a spokeswoman for the UN refugee agency in Kuala Lumpur, said that while even certified refugees remained at risk of arrest and detention by officials who ignored their credentials, Malaysia’s treatment of refugees had improved in recent years. She said in cases where refugees have been detained, the UN agency is now able to intervene and help get them released more quickly.

And despite the legal restrictions, there is “tolerance and acceptance” by the authorities of refugees taking jobs in informal sectors like construction, she said. She said the UN refugee agency’s initial impression of the plan was positive, although she said ‘safeguards’ would need to be in place, like ensuring that refugees were not forcibly returned to countries where they could face danger.

Last year, 8,000 refugees, most from Myanmar, left Malaysia to begin new lives in countries that accepted their asylum claims, with the US taking the greatest number. At a Kuala Lumpur apartment, two pairs of tiny pink sandals stand out among the dark adult shoes at the front door, which leads into a living room containing a small Buddhist shrine, a TV and a sewing machine. Twenty-nine people from Myanmar, 11 of them children, live there.

Khin, 18, moved into the apartment, which is paid for by a refugee support group, with her 10-year-old brother because their parents, who work as dishwashers, were having trouble caring for them. Although she is not happy to live apart from her parents, she said her new home was bigger than the apartment her parents shared with 30 other people.

Sai, 32,  said he fled Myanmar in 2008 after soldiers beat him and killed his father. His wife and two children joined him the following year. He hopes he will be able to move to Australia  soon. “If they called me today,” he said, “I would leave everything and go tomorrow.”

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