Htun Kham, a Burmese refugee I met in Malaysia, told us he was arrested and sentenced to eight months in prison and two brutal cane lashes last year. He fell ill in the detention center but was denied medical assistance. Just after his release was secured by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), he suffered a massive brain hemorrhage, which he attributes to the stress and regular abuses he faced in detention.
This could very well be the fate of some of the 800 asylum seekers Australia is forcibly removing to Malaysia.
An agreement signed Monday between the two governments authorizes 800 asylum seekers currently in Australia to be exchanged for 4,000 refugees recognized by UNHCR in Malaysia for permanent resettlement. The actions entailed in the agreement violate the basic principle of asylum and represents an irresponsible move by the Australian government to shift its responsibility to a government which has no legal framework for even the most basic of refugee rights.
Malaysia has refused its own human rights commission’s recommendation to sign the 1951 Geneva Convention relating to the status of refugees – a convention which turns 60 years old today. In 2008, Malaysia was ranked as one of the ten worst refugee hosting countries in the world. While the government has made some progress in curtailing the abusive behavior of its community militias towards refugees and asylum seekers, they still have no legal right to reside in Malaysia, no right to work and no right to send their children to government schools.
The lack of a legal framework for refugee rights means that refugees in Malaysia, even those registered with UNHCR, are still subject to detention, torture and extortion by Malaysian authorities. About 10,000 foreigners are caned each year, according to Amnesty International, and many are asylum seekers and refugees. Many refugees are caned for illegal entry, which would not apply to the asylum seekers transferred under the deal, but caning sentences are meted out for a number of other immigration offenses, including harboring those who are believed to have entered Malaysia illegally.
The Australian government, as a signatory to the 1951 convention, should be working to improve national asylum systems rather than off-loading its responsibilities on countries like Malaysia, which still have a long way to go to recognizing refugee rights. Last year, the Australian government funded UNHCR’s mobile registration campaign, an effort which paid for additional UNHCR staff to provide basic protection to asylum seekers and speed up the registration process. Since the end of the Australian-funded project, the registration system now lags. It now takes more than one year for asylum seekers to obtain an interview with UNHCR to review their case.
After an initial six weeks of support provided by Australian and Malaysia authorities, the asylum seekers transferred under the agreement will be left to survive on their own, with minimal services provided by NGOs and UNHCR. These services, which include access to a handful of health clinics in Malaysia’s capital and refugee-run schools and micro-grants, are already stretched thin due to the growing number of asylum seekers and refugees in Malaysia. If the agreement is going to have any success, the Australian government must pressure the Malaysian government to grant asylum seekers and refugees residence and work permits and the right to access government health and education services.
The Australian government claims that the agreement will prevent asylum seekers from turning to traffickers to organize their dangerous sea journeys to Australia. But for many, it is the lack of fair, transparent and accountable asylum systems in much of the world which drive asylum seekers to desperate and risky measures.
The agreement is a step back for refugee rights, not to mention for Australia, as a Refugee Convention signatory. While the agreement is likely a result of a domestic political game of parties competing to take a tough stance on asylum seekers, both countries are setting a dangerous precedent of outsourcing asylum seekers into a system which is still unable to protect basic rights.
July 28, 2011
| Tagged as: Burma, Malaysia, Humanitarian Response, Asia