Home News Malaysia Paradise Lost – Australia Send Asylum Seekers Back to “Hell”

Paradise Lost – Australia Send Asylum Seekers Back to “Hell”

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Download Australian and Malaysian officials have signed a controversial deal intended to stem the flow of asylum seekers travelling to Australia by boat.

The deal allows Australia to send 800 asylum seekers to Malaysia.

In return, Australia has agreed to pay Malaysia 300 million US dollars and will take 4,000 refugees from Malaysia over the next four years.

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard said it would "smash the business model of people smugglers".

But opposition parties in Australia  and rights groups in both countries have objected to the agreement saying Malaysia has a reputation of being ‘hell’ for refugees.

Our correspondent Clarence Chua in Kuala Lumpur finds out why people are worried.


At a church in Kuala Lumpur, several musicians are practicing for worship. The service at which they will play will be in Burmese.

Amongst the congregation is a 22 year old who only wants to be known as James.

“There is fighting in Burma. We are Chin ethnic Christians, they are Buddhist. We cannot go to church; we cannot worship.”

James fled to Malaysia two years ago and works illegally in a Chinese restaurant.

He carries a United Nations refugee card although that does little to prevent harassment from the authorities.

“In Malaysia we are always stopped by the police even if we have the card. They search your whole body in the police car. We give them about USD 70.00 for coffee money. It has happened to me four times. I hide my money in my underwear. If they don’t find money they will ask us why are you not working today. If they find it they will take it all away. How am I going home when I don’t have money to take a bus? But sometimes you tell them politely and they let you go. My sister, my brother are in America. I like America.”

Irene Fernandez is the executive director for Tenaganita, an NGO for women and migrant workers.

She explains why the UN card carries no weight in Malaysia.

“Malaysia has not rectified the UN convention on refugees therefore it uses the Immigration Act as a legal framework and thus defines refugees as illegal or undocumented migrants that’s why they are faced with the high risk of arrest, detention, whipping and deportation as well. Undocumented workers, refugees, currently over 95,000 refugees that are recognized by the UNHCR, do not have access to education, to health care service and they do not even have the right to work in this country. So the right to livelihood which is fundamental to any human being is denied to a refugee in this country.”

The majority of the refugees here come from Burma with a large number from Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan.

Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein who signed the refugee swap deal with Australia last week says the new asylum seekers will be allowed to work and have access to health care.

“At the outset we realized that the UNHCR and the International Organisation for Migration has to be on board. They will ensure that the benchmark is set and I think that is the way forward for Malaysia too.”

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) office here in KL declined our request for an interview but indicated that although they have been consulted they are still unclear exactly how the swap will work.

They issued a statement stating that: “UNHCR will continue to monitor and review progress, remaining engaged with the parties to ensure the protection safeguards are implemented in practice as the two governments bring this Arrangement into effect”.

Irene Fernandez from Tenaganita says the refugee swap will create more problems.

“The Malaysian government seems to have given political assurances to the Australian government that the rights of these refugees will be protected, all 800 of them. Now our concern is that the preferential treatment that will be accorded to the 800 will create a discriminatory practice. We have a 100,000 facing the harsh realities; here we have 800 of them that will be given preferential treatment. Now this is going to create a lot of stress at the ground level.”

Irene also criticized Australia for creating a dangerous precedent.

“Now if developed countries are going to take this position of outsourcing refugee processing and paying money, it goes against the very spirit of refugee protection as enshrined in the UN Convention, then the ratification of that convention becomes meaningless especially when you are handing the whole work to a country that does not recognize refugee rights. That is really bad precedence.”

Despite the description of Malaysia as a ‘hell’ for asylum seekers some refugees have made a home here.

Twenty year old Janet, not her real name, looks like an average middle-class Malaysian teenager.

Her mother is ethnic Karen and her father is Burmese.

Not accepted by either side her mother decided to seek refugee status in Malaysia.

“I worked at a photo shop after I studied at one of the ministry training centres here, after that I worked at a community center in the Selayang area.”

Janet and her two younger brothers have been in Malaysia for three years.

She now devotes her time to helping other Burmese nationals in a NGO-run refugee school.

She has no plans to try and leave Malaysia.

“For me everywhere is ok. If God put me somewhere then I'm fine. Even though I come to Malaysia, no hope for me, I cannot study but I know that God still bless me. I can find a job not because I’m good but the shop owner also accepts me. The school accepts me but for the others I think they have trouble. If God also send me back to Myanmar I also don’t mind. I know difficulties are there. If you go to another country you think it’s ok there? I don’t think so.”

Last Updated ( Monday, 08 August 2011 10:47 )  

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