By: Amy Alexander
25 June 2007
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: Over 200 asylum-seekers and UNHCR-recognized refugees from Burma have been rounded up and taken into custody after early morning immigration raids today conducted by Malaysia’s controversial People’s Volunteer Corps (RELA) in Kuala Lumpur neighborhoods.
The raids began around 1:30 am and took place in KL’s urban neighborhoods of Jalan Imbi and Sempaing, where a large number of asylum seekers and refugees from Burma’s Chin State reside. Approximately 217 were arrested and reportedly taken to Lenggeng detention camp located two hours outside of KL. This is the second large-scale raid in this area of KL since the beginning of the year.
Among those arrested are many UNHCR-recognized refugees, including several who are scheduled to be resettled to a third country within the next couple weeks and months. The Coordinator for the Chin Refugee Center (CRC), a community-based organization working to provide assistance to the Chin population living in Malaysia, was one of those arrested during the raid. He and his family are scheduled for resettlement to the United States in September. The Coordinator was eventually released after intervention by UNHCR and human rights organizations.
This raid is just one of a series of raids that have been conducted since the Government of Malaysia launched operations targeting undocumented migrants in March 2005. Despite criticism by human rights groups, conditions have only gotten worse for undocumented migrants as harassment, arrests, and deportations increased during the last year. Those arrested for immigration offenses are increasingly charged with canings, a serious penalty that leaves deep, permanent scarring. Conditions inside Malaysia’s detention facilities meanwhile remain deplorable, with detainees being given inadequate food, clothing, and accommodations, in addition to being subjected to verbal and physical abuse by the guards.
RELA, the untrained task force largely responsible for conducting immigration raids, has been the focus of consistent complaints for human rights violations and abuse of power. RELA has been responsible for deliberate property damage, extortion, harassment, indiscriminate and unlawful arrests, and physical assaults resulting in serious injuries and even death. Increasingly, there are calls for an end to RELA’s activities, with the Malaysia-based human rights group SUARAM issuing two separate complaints to the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (SUHAKAM) within the last year and the Malaysian Bar calling for RELA’s immediate disbandment in March. Within this last month, RELA succumbed to pressure by numerous human rights groups to do away with the bounty system, which provided RELA agents with 80RM (US$25) for each arrest and led to increased abuses among the untrained volunteers.
Meanwhile the Malaysian Government has refused to address these issues. Rather, in February of this year, Malaysia’s Home Affairs Minister, Datuk Seri Radzi Sheikh Ahmad reportedly criticized the UNHCR for getting in the way of the operations of agencies such as RELA and the Immigration Department. The Minister further indicated that Malaysia “accepts UNHCR’s presence, but not their powers.” At the beginning of this month, Foreign Minister Syed Hamid further reiterated that Malaysia will not recognize refugees.
Hundreds of thousands of Chins have been forced to leave their homes in Burma to escape severe ethnic and religious persecution committed by the military regime of Burma. They arrive in Malaysia in search of some sense of security. Currently, there are over 23,000 Chin asylum seekers and refugees living in Malaysia. Instead of finding safety, the Chin people are the constant target of harassment, arrest, detention, and deportation by the Malaysian authorities. In addition, they are unable to work, receive an education, access healthcare services, or find acceptable living accommodations. With the UNHCR registration process closed since July 2005, obtaining refugee status or any protective documents from the UNHCR is difficult. As a result, life for the Chins in Malaysia is full of abuses and uncertainties.