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Putrajaya snub for rights treaties puts refugees here at risk, report says

Malaysia currently hosts one of the largest urban refugee populations in the world, with some 146,020 refugees and asylum seekers registered with the UNHCR as of June 30. (Photo: Reuters)

By Yiswaree Palansamy
October 17, 2014

KUALA LUPUR ― Putrajaya’s unwillingness to commit to key global rights treaties is exacerbating the vulnerability of refugees and asylum seekers here, a London-based human rights foundation said today.

In its report launched today on stateless Rohingyas in Malaysia and Thailand, Equal Rights Trust pointed out that Malaysia has only ratified three core international human rights treaties, despite being an active member of regional human rights bodies.

The report states that while Malaysia has ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), it had rejected recommendations to remove its reservations to three other Conventions in March.

These include the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), the Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD).

“As a member state of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), Malaysia is a signatory state to the 2012 ASEAN Human Rights Declaration, a non-binding document which nonetheless is a reflection of the human rights consensus in the region.

“Malaysia is also an active member of regional human rights bodies such as the ASEAN Inter-governmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) and ASEAN Commission on the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Women and Children (ACWC). In 2015, Malaysia will assume the chair of ASEAN,” the report states, stressing that under these coinages, Malaysia therefore possesses a legal duty to protect the rights of refugees and stateless persons on its shores.

Equal Rights Trust said that report was compiled after over three years of in-depth research, analysis and field work by a multi-disciplinary international team, including interviews with key government officials to offer a renewed insight as to how the Rohingya issue is viewed and responded to by each state.

The report is a joint effort with the Institute of Human Rights and Peace Studies of Mahidol University (IHRP) in Thailand.

A similar report was also compiled on Thailand.

The report stated that Putrajaya, in the absence of a local refuges law framework, also often resorts to using the Immigration Act 1959 and 1963 to emphasise a system of border control and deterrence.

“Under the Immigration Act, all refugees, asylum seekers and stateless persons are classified as “illegal immigrants” and are therefore liable to arrest, prosecution, detention and financial penalties, and may also be subject to whipping and refoulement.”

The report stated that the punishments can also apply to all irregular migrants, regardless of whether they are children, pregnant women, the sick, or the elderly.

It also alleged that Putrajaya ignored the presence of refugees and asylum seekers in the country, and that the administration imposed a condition that it will be the onus of the international community, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) particularly to undertake responsibility in caring for the group.

“Refugees and asylum seekers, including the Rohingya, are also vulnerable to extortion by the police and immigration officers,” the report further read.

It said that reports of complicity by Malaysian immigration officers also continue, especially in facilitating trafficking.

“As a result of continued non-compliance with minimum standards in elimination of trafficking, Malaysia has again been downgraded to Tier 3 by the US State Department in its 2014 Trafficking in Persons Report.”

In June, the US State Department had downgraded Malaysia along with Thailand, Venezuela and The Gambia to Tier 3 - the lowest possible ranking - in its yearly Trafficking of Persons Report (TIP).

According to the State Department, countries on the lowest tier may be subject to certain sanctions, including the withholding or withdrawal of non-humanitarian, non-trade-related foreign assistance.

However, in a statement posted on the Foreign Ministry’s website on June 22, the federal government argued that the US State Department had relied on “unverified information, provided by dubious organisations” in evaluating Malaysia for the damning report.

“Malaysia believes that information that was used in the preparation of the Report was flawed, inaccurate and did not reflect measures and steps taken by the respective Malaysian authorities to counter the scourge of trafficking in persons in Malaysia, as a whole.

“We also believe that the source of the information used by the authorities in the United States of America were not credible,” read the statement.

The federal government stressed that Malaysia has a “long and distinguished record” of being a temporary home to migrants, including an estimated 35,000 Muslim minority Rohingyas who have fled sectarian violence in Burma.

Equal Rights Trust said that presently, Malaysia hosts one of the largest urban refugee populations in the world, with some 146,020 refugees and asylum seekers registered with the UNHCR as of June 30.

The majority (over 135,025) are from Myanmar, of which the two largest groups are ethnic Chins (51,450) and the Rohingya (37,850).

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