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MALAYSIA: Thousands of Refugees Living in Constant Fear of Arrest

Baradan Kuppusamy

KUALA LUMPUR, Jun 28 2010 (IPS) - As Rajoo, 27, makes tea at a rundown shed in Brickfields, a depressed suburb of the capital inhabited by hundreds of Tamil immigrants from Sri Lanka, he evinces no sign of anxiety and a deep yearning for something.

He dreams of returning to his village in war-ravaged Sri Lanka except that it had been razed to the ground by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) – an armed group that had waged a decades-long bloody insurgency against the government on the country’s north-eastern coast, home to its largest ethnic minority.

The LTTE was finally defeated by military troops in May 2009.

Despite the war’s end, Rajoo says he is scared of returning to his home country. “My village is gone and my relatives are either dead or in camps,” he says. “At the height of the battle, I left my wife and son with an uncle and fled to South India by sea and flew to Malaysia.”

Rajoo is one of an estimated 100,000 refugees currently living in Malaysia and who risk arrest by the highly feared People’s Volunteer Corps (RELA), a paramilitary group which has the power to apprehend refugees and undocumented migrant workers and have them jailed or deported.

Rajoo, who declines to give his real name for fear of arrest by members of RELA, says he has an identification card issued by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), “but authorities don’t give it much respect,” he tells IPS.

The UNCHR card entitles refugees like him to basic rights such as freedom of movement within the host country in line with the international agreements on refugees.

Resettling former Sri Lankan refugees like Rajoo in their homeland is an uphill struggle even if the war has ended, says opposition lawmaker and human rights activist Kulasegaran Murugesan, who is of Tamil descent and is campaigning in the Malaysian parliament to improve the Tamil refugee conditions in Malaysia.

Refugees are not allowed to work under Malaysian law, but most do anyway to supplement the UNHCR monthly assistance of 300 Malaysian ringgit (around 93 U.S. dollars) that they are getting, says Murugesan.

Malaysia has not acceded to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol.

The Convention is an international agreement that defines who is a refugee and establishes their rights and the legal obligations of the states parties.

Although the government has agreed to cooperate with the UNHCR in addressing refugee issues on humanitarian grounds, Malaysian authorities often do not differentiate between refugees and economic migrants, says Murugesan. Such migrants comprise around three million documented and undocumented individuals from poor countries who are trying to make a living in this South-east Asian country

“Malaysia is a dangerous place for refugees who are often abused, arrested and treated like criminals,” Ragunath Kesavan, president of the Malaysian Bar Council, tells IPS.

“Refugees and asylum seekers, particularly women and children, are often at risk of arrest, prosecution, detention and deportation. In some cases, they are trafficked upon deportation.”

These observations confirm the findings of international human rights group Amnesty International (AI). Instead of finding comfort and protection, the refugees in Malaysia end up “abused, exploited, arrested and locked up,” said the AI in its report released this month.

“The abusive way we treat refugees and our refusal to sign the U.N.’s refugee protocols is a shame,” says prominent lawyer and rights activist Surendran Nagalingam. “Our human rights record is deplorable among the family of nations in the region.”

Murugesan believes Malaysia refuses to sign the Convention and the Protocol for fear it would be swamped by migrants who can easily claim to be refugees such as what happened when Indonesians from Aceh province flocked to Malaysia at the height of the conflict in this northern Indonesian province.

But the Aceh conflict in neighbouring Indonesia is effectively over, he says. “There is no fear of being swamped now,” he adds.

“We must sign these protocols and play our part as responsible citizens of the world,” he says. Otherwise, “we forfeit our right to decry abuse in other places like the Middle East.”

Refugees seeking safety in Malaysia also come from war-torn Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan. The majority are natives of military-ruled Burma, who fled their country only to be subjected to a litany of abuses upon reaching Malaysia, since the government does not recognise their status.

The refugees’ lack of legal status for refugees in Malaysia means they can be punished with imprisonment of up to five years and whipping for illegally entering the country, says the AI.

To deflect mounting criticism of its alleged violations of the rights of refugees under international treaties, Malaysia has announced that it is considering certain measures to improve the plight of refugees within its borders such as allowing refugees to work while awaiting resettlement abroad.

But a senior home ministry official, who spoke to IPS on condition of anonymity, says these measures are still at a planning stage. “The government has not given the green light to implement (them),” he says.

Until such measures are in place, Rajoo and other refugees like him will live in constant fear of arrest.

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