Malaysia-Burma Detainee Swap Plan Sparks Outrage
19 October 2011 – KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia and Burma have agreed in principle to exchange detainees, a move that immediately sparked ‘shock’ and concerns among human rights groups.
Malaysian Home Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein said the exchange is aimed at reducing congestion at immigration depots in the country.
Malaysian detention centers are notorious for overcrowding.
He told a news conference after meeting with Burma Deputy Foreign Minister U Maung Myint who is on a three-day official visit to Malaysia.
U Maung Myint said arrangements will soon be made to send Burmese nationals detained at Malaysian immigration depots back to Burma.
This proposal comes on the heels of the abandoned Malaysia-Australia agreement in July to swap asylum-seekers and refugees between the two countries, which was later struck down by the Australian High Court as illegal.
The majority of asylum seekers from Burma on Malaysian soil are ethnic Chins. According to the Chin Refugee Committee (CRC), at least 500 people from different ethnic groups are currently in detention centers, of which around 200 are ethnic Chins.
But Malaysia is set to launch a major crackdown on undocumented migrants and rights groups fear more asylum seekers and refugees may be arrested and detained in the process.
The idea to send back Burmese nationals has raised serious concerns and outrage among rights groups which said it would breach human rights as most Burmese nationals fled their country to escape persecution.
Salai Bawi Lian Mang, Executive Director of CHRO (Chin Human Rights Organization) said the proposal is extremely worrying because the root cause of refugee flight – the systematic violations of human rights – still continues on a widespread scale in Burma.
“Despite recent cosmetic changes from Naypyidaw, we continue to document serious violations of human rights committed by the Burma Army and other state officials in Burma,” he said.
Migrant Care Malaysia Director Alex Ong told local media that the situation of Burmese nationals was different from that of Indonesians and Bangladeshis.
“The Indonesians and Bangladeshis mostly come to Malaysia as economic migrants, meaning they are seeking wealth and a better life.”
“The majority of Burma detainees, however, are seeking political asylum, and are not here for economic reasons. We also have to consider their refugee status,” he said.
The detainee swap announcement has also ‘shocked’ the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), according to local human rights activists who contacted the agency yesterday.
Yesterday six leading Malaysian human rights groups issued a joint statement, cautioning that Malaysia inevitably risks violating international human rights law if it went ahead with the deal.
Malaysia is a member of the 47-member UN Human Rights Council.
“The deportation arising from the swap with Burma for immigration detainees contravenes the principle of non-refoulement because of the presence of detainees in detention centres who are potentially refugees and asylum seekers.”
Non-refoulement principle is a customary international law, which prohibits the forced return of people who fled persecution in their country of origin.
“Ethnic and religious minorities in Burma have been experiencing ongoing persecution leading to the exodus of several hundreds of thousands of people over the past twenty years fleeing oppressive conditions of forced labor, confiscation of lands/homes, systematic rape, torture and other forms of religious and ethnic persecution. The majority of the population from Burma in Malaysia are persons fleeing such persecution,” said the leading human rights groups.
Malaysian Home Minister was quoted as saying by local media on Monday that asylum seekers will not be included in the deal. However, rights groups say they remain highly concerned despite the reassurance.
Representatives of local human rights groups are meeting with UNHCR today to discuss the matter, according to refugee community leaders.
Based on Reporting by Thomas Chong