Women and children refugees are leaving their homes and moving deeper and deeper into the jungles to escape arrest and detention by Rela and the Immigration authorities. Gripped with fear and uncertainty, hundreds of refugees face the risk of lack of food and of diseases in the jungles.
During the last few weeks, the Malaysian government has stepped up intensive raids, especially in areas which have a high density of refugees and asylum seekers. These raids are well-planned and organised. They happen during the day, in the wee hours of the morning or very late at night, when the authorities are certain that the refugees will be indoors or returning from work.
The raids often take place for several hours at a time. During the arrests, refugees run for their lives leading many to face injuries as a result of falls or accidents. Many flee their homes, with babies and little children in tow, leaving behind all their belongings, running for refuge in whatever form that may be. To be constantly vigilant and on the move is a persistent reality they face when running from being unjustly detained.
Reports from community members who have managed to escape arrests say that even children, whose parents may not be around at the time of the raid, are arrested. Upon arrests, the refugees are then placed in Immigration Detention Camps. The camps are already packed with refugees and undocumented migrants, thus the influx of arrests in these past few weeks could only lead to an increase in over-crowding and further deterioration of the conditions in the camp.
Children have also been separated from their parents, particularly if the child is arrested without his or her mother. As one Rohingya woman shared, her two-year old son is now in a detention camp, as he and his father were arrested during a particular raid. We are particularly concerned over the detention of infants and young children without their mothers as they tend to be uncared for particularly in regards to the special needs of infants and children. The refugee parents are concerned that they may never get their children back.
After the arrests, refugees are kept in overcrowded immigration detention centres. The majority of them are then charged under the Immigration Act for being an illegal immigrant in the country. The detained refugee is then sentenced to imprisonment and many of them have been caned or whipped. There was even a case of a 15-year-old boy who was whipped as part of the sentence.
The root cause of the problem is that the Malaysian government has refused to recognise refugees and asylum-seekers. Malaysia has not signed the Convention on Refugees. Consequently their status in Malaysia is the same as an ‘illegal’ immigrant or undocumented worker.
After their sentence, the refugees are deported to the Thailand-Malaysia border. Ex-detainees have shared how, many make a payment in order to be released quicker. If they are unable to pay, either in the detention camp or at the border, they face a strong risk of being sold to traffickers, or are forced to work without pay, usually on fishing trawlers. There is a growing concern that such raids may increase the trafficking of refugees as bonded workers.
The recent raid on the Zomi organisation is of grave concern for the refugee community and organisations working with refugees. The refugees have also organised, through their own initiative, their own support and care groups to sustain themselves and help each other. Is this the beginning signs of organised arrests of community leaders and the dismantling of service-centred organisations?
Due to the ongoing raids, it is becoming more and more difficult for humanitarian support to continue as refugees are not able to participate in programmes. They become invisible and difficult to reach and thus become increasingly vulnerable.
Refugees and asylum-seekers must be recognised and given a special status with the right to stay and work. Basic fundamental rights with humanitarian principles must form the basis and approach to manage the refugee issues and concerns in Malaysia. The Malaysian government has ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (Cedaw) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).
Yet, the state continues to violate the rights of women and children and justify the discriminatory practices against refugees. It is therefore important that Malaysians express their protest on the inhumane treatment and unjust arrests of refugees and asylum seekers.
We call on all Malaysians to write letters of concern to the Malaysian authorities expressing your protest and concern and calling on the government, the international community and the UNHCR to ensure refugees are recognised, their fundamental rights accorded and the unjust arrests of refugees be stopped immediately. The Malaysian government is a member of the Human Rights Council and thus must use the human rights approach to protect and care for the refugee population in the country.
The writer is director, Tenaganita.