Malaysia’s Charade Over Refugee Camps

Malaysia’s Inspector General of Police Khalid Abu Bakar said earlier that he was shocked, shocked at the scenes of horror unfolding in the jungled fastness on the border between Thailand and Malaysia, where hundreds, perhaps thousands of refugees fleeing Burmese and Bangladeshi persecution have been held.

But it is difficult to take Khalid seriously, especially after officials acknowledged that the camps have been there, hidden in a remote area of a state park where few people go and where there is little law. “We have been building up intelligence and information,” Khalid said.

At least 139 graves have been found in the area, where trafficking syndicates have been operating for decades, raising the possibility that there are hundreds of others. “It is a very sad scene," Khalid told reporters at a nearby police outpost. "I am shocked. We never expected this kind of cruelty."

However, human rights groups and western governments have been criticizing Malaysian officials for years over their policies regarding the Rohingya and other refugees. As early as 2009, in a report titled Trafficking and Extortion of Burmese Migrants in Malaysia and Southern Thailand that said even then that the allegations were not new, the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, in a wide-ranging investigation, found that “Once in Malaysia, Burmese migrants are often arrested by Malaysian authorities, whether or not they have registered with the UNHCR and have identification papers. Personal belongings confiscated at the time of arrest are usually kept by Malaysian officials.”

Then-Home Minister Syed Hamid Albar scoffed at claims that that thousands of illegal foreigners held at detention centers were ``being sold off” to human trafficking syndicates. ”I take offence with the allegation because neither the Malaysian government nor its officials make money by selling people.”

Nonetheless, it has long been commonly suspected in Kuala Lumpur that high officials including members of the police and the immigration ministry, if not political figures, have been deeply involved in both people and drug trafficking across the border. A longtime immigration official, Ishak Haji Mohammed, was forced into early retirement on suspicion of corruption in 2008. The previous director general, Wahid Mohamed Don and others were also arrested by the Anti-Corruption Agency for alleged graft in 2008.

In fact, Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi told reporters earlier this week that Malaysian enforcement officers may have been complicit in, or even responsible, for the deaths of migrants and trafficked people found buried in the mass graves.

"We are still investigating. We don't deny the possibility," Zahid said, acknowledging the possibility that enforcement officers may have disposed of the bodies.”

Malaysia, with a healthy and a variegated labor market, has long been both a destination and a transit country for victims not just including Rohingya but foreign workers from Indonesia, the Philippines, Pakistan and other countries. There were approximately two million documented migrant workers in Malaysia in 2009, and an additional estimated 1.9 million who were undocumented, working in electronics assembly plants, oil palm and rubber plantations and a wide variety of other industries.

According to the US Senate report, traffickers are known to possess “attendance lists” of refugees that are identical to the attendance lists read prior to the refugees’ departure from Malaysian detention facilities. The lists apparently are made available to traffickers to help them collect up migrants to either traffick them or extort money from them. Migrants unable to pay into bank accounts in Kuala Lumpur, according to the report, were turned over to human peddlers in Thailand, “representing a variety of business interests ranging from fishing boats to brothels.”

Most young women are sexually abused, even in front of their husbands, by the syndicates since anyone who intervenes “would be shot or stabbed to death in the jungle,” according to the Senate report.

That was in 2008. It appears little has changed, and in fact the situation may well have got worse. The country’s motives have to be questioned. According to the US State Department’s 2014 Trafficking in Persons report, “The government of Malaysia does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking. The country was granted consecutive waivers in 2012 and 2013 from a downgrade to Tier 3 – the bottom ranking in a three-tier measure of attempts to control trafficking,” the report said.

“A waiver is no longer available to Malaysia, which is therefore deemed not to be making significant efforts to comply with the minimum standards and is placed on Tier 3 status,” the report said. The government “made limited efforts to improve its flawed victim protection scheme.”

“Survivors describe how they flee persecution in Burma only to fall into the hands of traffickers and extortionists, in many cases witnessing deaths and suffering abuse and hunger,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Interviews with officials and others make clear that these brutal networks, with the complicity of government officials in Burma, Bangladesh, Thailand, and Malaysia, profit from the desperation and misery of some of the world’s most persecuted and neglected people.”

Regular police in Malaysia engage in extortion, according to a 2010 report by Amnesty International, titled Trapped: the Exploitation of Migrant Workers in Malaysia as well, and may threaten or inflict violence on those who cannot pay.

“Because so many migrant workers suffer such abuses—nearly every worker Amnesty International interviewed had been the victim of police extortion or knew somebody who had been—they are understandably reluctant to report other crime to the authorities. ‘Some local gangs, they do robbery,’ said one Nepali worker living in the Klang Valley, which surrounds Kuala Lumpur. “They use knives. There is no protection. We cannot fight if they pull a knife because police will take us. They are local. We cannot go to the police station because we are foreigners. We are not stable here.”