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Rela raids: futile exercises of power

May is terrified. A Rela raid is happening around her. They are storming down corridors, shouting at residents to demand entry, threatening to cut the locks. She just got back from the border after months in a detention centre. When she was deported to the Thai border, she had to pay RM1,900 to traffickers to be released and sent back to Malaysia. Otherwise, she might have been sold to a brothel.

May fled from Burma after soldiers raped her. If she is arrested, the nightmare begins again. Only this time, she may not be able to raise the money required to buy her freedom. She is already in deep debt. Kyaw was arrested in 2007. He was kept in different detention centers for two months, and then brought to court. There was no interpreter. He was sentenced to five months imprisonment and two strokes of the cane.

He was extremely afraid of the whipping. He was stretched out on a rack with his buttocks exposed. The pain from the first stroke was so intense that he blacked out. He stayed in jail for another two months, and then got deported. He too, had to pay traffickers to come back to Malaysia. He couldn’t go back to Burma, where he is afraid of the junta military. He will carry these scars on his buttocks for the rest of his life – Malaysia has branded him for his time here.

The Rela raids happen all the time; as I write this, a raid is going on in Ampang, Lembah Jaya, with refugees trapped in their homes, afraid that Rela personnel patrolling outside will bang on their doors. They SMS their fear. In 2007, the (previous) Home Affairs Minister said that Rela conducted between 30 to 40 raids a night. Detention centers have become overcrowded, packed beyond what their facilities are able to provide.

Women, children, and babies, are detained as well. Ex-detainees say that the food is meager; that they get sick often. There are no special provisions for babies and children. The say it is unbearably hot, that it is dirty, and the toilets stink. They sometimes don’t have place to lie down at night, because of the overcrowding. Tensions are high; they are desperate, not knowing how long they will be forced to stay. They fight lice and mosquitoes. I have seen fungus growing on the skin of ex-detainees. They are sometimes beaten badly.

What is the point of arresting refugees and stateless persons? They can’t go back to their homeland, even though most of them desperately want to. Malaysia is obligated under international customary law not to deport them to Burma – doing so would be an act of 'refoulement', returning them to where their life and/or liberty are threatened.

Instead, we populate them in our detention centres and prisons (which are already hopelessly overcrowded) and then deport them to the Thai border, where they are handed over to traffickers.

This is futile exercise of power, a waste of taxpayers’ resources. Migrant Care, an Indonesian NGO states that each Rela raid costs us about RM25,000. Add to that the costs of maintaining prisons and detention centers for people who do not belong there, as well as the time and resources of the police and immigration, which are better spent catching real criminals rather than vulnerable people fleeing persecution.

What is the point of arresting refugees and stateless persons, deporting them, and feeding the trafficking industry? Malaysia, like other civilised countries, need to play our part in ensuring that vulnerable populations are protected rather than further traumatised and harassed. We have obligations to protect under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, to which we are signatories.

Both the committees who oversee the implementation of these conventions in all member countries have strongly urged Malaysia to put into place refugee status determination procedures so that refugees are legally recognised and given protection. However, Malaysia has not been responding to these calls by the international community.

Granted, enacting domestic laws takes time. However, there are immediate actions that can be done to protect refugees and to stop the waste of government expenditure. Firstly, Rela and Immigration officials can recognise identity documents produced by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) which identify which individuals are asylum seekers, refugees and stateless persons.

The Police recognise these documents, but Rela and immigration don’t. Secondly, they can give the UNHCR access to all asylum seekers, refugees and stateless persons in detention centers and prisons, so that they can verify if their claims for asylum and protection are genuine.

Thirdly, the Malaysian Government can formally exempt asylum seekers, refugees, and stateless persons under Section 55 of the Immigration Act, which has been recommended by the

Committee on the Rights of the Child. These are simple steps, in line with international obligations, that have tremendous power to reduce suffering amongst the persecuted.

In a raid last Wednesday in Klang, two days ago, we hear than fifteen children were arrested. They are from the Rohingya community, ethnic minorities from Burma, who are stateless. By accident of birth, and by acts of political power outside their control, they are ‘illegal’ everywhere they go. What will happen to these children?

Will they too, stay detained in detention centers for months, and then get deported to the Thai border? Who will pay traffickers for their release? Will they be sold to brothels or to individuals who will keep them, use them – for sex or as forced laborers – and re-sell them to other ‘private owners’, as has happened to others in the past? It is within our power to help these populations in distress. We are able to, we are obligated to, and we should.

The writer is executive committee member, Persatuan Kebangsaan Hak Asasi Manusia (Hakam) and a co-coordinator of the Migration Working Group.

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