By: Amy Alexander
31 July 2007
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: About 60 refugees and asylum seekers from Burma’s Chin State are now behind bars in Malaysia awaiting an uncertain future after immigration raids yesterday in Kuala Lumpur’s Jalan Lokeyew neighborhood. About 20 women and children and 25 UNHCR-recognized refugees are among those rounded up during the raid.
Almost half of those arrested yesterday morning are recognized refugees with valid UNHCR documents. Many are in the final stages of a long process to be resettled to a third country, with some scheduled to depart within the next couple weeks. Instead of boarding an airplane to begin a new life abroad, they now face the possibility of being loaded onto a lorry bound for the Thai border.
The raid began in the early hours of the morning yesterday in Kuala Lumpur’s Jalan Lokeyew neighborhood, where a large number of refugees and asylum seekers from Burma’s Chin State reside. This neighborhood was targeted just one month ago in a similarly-styled raid, which resulted in the arrest and detention of mostly women and young children.
The raid was conducted by Malaysia’s controversial RELA or the People’s Volunteer Corps, an untrained, volunteer civilian unit endowed with considerable enforcement powers. This year RELA has come under increasing criticism for its member’s reckless conduct and abusive actions during raids, not only by international human rights groups but also by organization’s within Malaysia’s civil society. In March, the Malaysian Bar joined the Malaysia-based human rights group SUARAM in calling for RELA’s immediate disbandment following repeated complaints of torture and other human rights violations.
Despite continued condemnation by members of the international community and human rights organizations, yesterday’s raid is one of a mounting number of recently conducted raids targeting the refugee and undocumented migrant community in Malaysia. Since the beginning of this year, several hundreds of refugees and undocumented migrants have been caught up in similar immigration raids.
Malaysia refuses to recognize or give any protections to refugees or asylum seekers living within its borders. Rather, Malaysia has been conducting operations to target undocumented migrants as well as refugees and asylum seekers since March 2005. In February of this year, Malaysia’s Home Affairs Minister, Datuk Seri Radzi Sheikh Ahmad reaffirmed the government’s intolerance for the refugee population by criticizing 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.”
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.