Malaysia Plan to Deport Burmese Runs Into Flak

There is rising opposition to a Malaysian plan to deport Burmese refugees and asylum seekers from civil rights groups, Malaysia’s leading opposition party and the Asean Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar Caucus until there is job security and safety in their homeland.

The Asean caucus, in a press release, said that: “Those who flee Myanmar (as Burma is also known), namely ethnic and other persecuted minorities, remain at risk from persecution of all forms - forced labor, land confiscation, rape, and torture among them - should they continue to live under the military regime. Thus, they risk their lives to find asylum in neighboring states, in pursuit of a dignified, secure and peaceful life elsewhere.”

Many of the Burmese belong to ethnic minorities and fled their homeland for fear of forced labor, rape, violence, murder and persecution by the government army, the Asean caucus said.

Under the terms of the pact, Malaysia is scheduled to deport 1,000 Burmese currently held at detention centers, mostly for immigration offenses, while Burma will return Malaysian detainees, Malaysian Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein announced last week.

Malaysia, as a relatively rich country with porous borders and geographic proximity to some poor ones, has been wrestling with questions over refugees for months if not years. There are believed to be millions of Indonesian economic migrants in the country as well as an estimated 340,000 Burmese including more than 87,000 refugees registered by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and an unknown number of Cambodians.

In September, a so-called “Malaysia solution” with Australia seeking a regional solution, fell through, leaving both countries in a continuing quandary. Under the proposed policy, announced by Prime Minister Julia Gillard in May, Australia would have accepted 4,000 certified refugees from Malaysia, most of them Christian or Buddhist Burmese, in exchange for 800 asylum seekers who were to be sent to Malaysia. The 4,000 that Australia wished to trade, including unaccompanied children, are currently held on Christmas Island, 2,750 km from Darwin. They are believed to be mostly Muslims. The scheme was an attempt to stem a continuing influx into Australia from poverty-stricken or war-torn countries, particularly Afghanistan and Sri Lanka. The idea behind the swap - to be paid for by the Australian government - was to both seek to come up with a regional solution and to put an end to dangerous boat trips.

However, the scheme ran afoul of the fact that Malaysia, like many other Southeast Asian nations, is not a signatory to the United Nations Convention on Refugees and thus, according to lawyers arguing against the plan, there was no way to guarantee that the refugees to be swapped would be treated humanely.

In Malaysia, Lim Kit Siang, the chairman of the opposition Democratic Action Party, said that the detainee exchange between Malaysia and Burma should be suspended until there is assurance that both refugees and asylum seekers will be protected from prosecution.

“The agreement will only further jeopardize the dignity and security of Myanmar refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia. Those who flee Myanmar remain at risk of persecution in all forms,” Lim told a press conference in the lobby of Parliament.

Speaking with The Irrawaddy, Agung Putri, the executive director of the Asean Inter-parliamentary Myanmar Caucus (AIPMC), said migrants come to Malaysia for different reasons, so the country should review the reasons the Burmese flee to Malaysia. She said many do not come for economic reasons, but because of systematic persecution in their homeland. The refugees, she said, must be categorized differently from Indonesian and Cambodian migrants.

“We would like Malaysia to overthrow its policy, and suspend the exchange,” Putri said.

On Oct. 19, Suaram, a Malaysian rights group, released a statement saying that the Malaysia-Burma pact could result in some Burmese nationals being forced to return to a country "where their lives could be in danger."

Aung Naing Thu, a Burmese activist in Malaysia, told The Irrawaddy that the security of Burmese refugees and asylum seekers is at risk, and employment is uncertain for them if they are deported to Burma.

“Many of the refugees don’t want to return to Burma,” he said. “If they do go back, they have to worry about their safety,” said Aung Naing Thu.

The human rights situation in Burma, grievous as it remains, is unlikely to be able to ensure such protections, without which Malaysia cannot hope to fulfill its international obligations to ensure that human rights of refugees be protected, said the AIPMC in a statement.

The Asean caucus said the refugee swap, “which would see Burmese nationals returned to persecution in their homeland, serves political interests well ahead of these exceedingly serious human rights concerns. Contrary to the principles of international law upon which Asean is founded, such an agreement would only further jeopardize the dignity and security of Burmese refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia; indeed, who themselves should be considered among the region's most vulnerable.”

The caucs called for a halt to any such plans until effective systems can be put place to ensure that such refugees and asylum seekers be protected from persecution upon their return to Burma.

“The human rights situation in Myanmar, grievous as it remains, is unlikely to be able to ensure such protections, without which Malaysia cannot hope to fulfill its international obligations to ensure that human rights of refugees be protected.

(With reporting from Irrawaddy, with which Asia Sentinel has a content-sharing agreement.)