No Asylum: Burmese in Malaysia
covering burma and southeast asia
Tuesday, June 25, 2019
Magazine

COVER STORY

No Asylum: Burmese in Malaysia


By Mun Ching JUNE, 2002 - VOLUME 10 NO.5


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Malaysia’s stringent anti-migrant policies are making life unbearable for refugees from Burma, including those recognized by the UNHCR. ens of thousands of immigrants put themselves into the hands of human traffickers each year to arrange for their illegal entry into Malaysia. Among them are thousands of Burmese immigrants who have bought their way into the country—not so much in search of a high-paying job as to escape persecution in their own country. However, the strict policy of the Malaysian government against any form of unauthorized immigration does not draw distinctions between the immigrants’ circumstances. When arrested, even genuine Burmese asylum seekers are deported back to Thailand, where many end up back in the hands of traffickers. In an attempt to end this vicious cycle, the Burmese have only one option—to seek recognition as political refugees by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) so that they will be granted immunity from arrests and resettled in third countries. However, several recent incidents have instead turned the spotlight on the refugee agency for what many have seen as its failure to shield those most in need of its protection. When a group of Rohingyas—a Muslim minority from Burma—entered the UNHCR compound in Kuala Lumpur last January to appeal for asylum, these "rejected asylum seekers" were instead handed over to the police for deportation, against strong protests by human rights organizations. Even those who are UNHCR-recognized refugees are not immune to arrest. In February, Tha Sui Chin and Tha Hnaing Sung—two Burmese Chin women in their mid-20s—were arrested and sent to a camp for illegal immigrants in the northern state of Perak, where they remain captive despite holding papers proving their status as refugees. "When we contacted the UNHCR, they did not know anything about the arrest of these two women. They promised to help, but so far we have not seen it," said Michael Bwai (not his real name) when interviewed in the days following the women’s detention. "It is hard for us to get the status as refugees, but even for those who are successful, their papers are not recognized," he added. Indeed, the number of those who qualify for UNHCR protection is dismally low. According to the agency’s Kuala Lumpur office, out of over 2,000 applications by the Rohingyas since the early 1990s, only about 100 have been resettled in third countries. These statistics are also verified by Burmese social workers, who claim that out of some 470 applicants among the Chin community in Kuala Lumpur over the past two years, only 29 have been recognized by the UNHCR as refugees. "This is a less than 10 percent approval rating and it is very low compared to the situation in other countries. For instance, the UNHCR office in New Delhi recognized over 90 percent of those who applied for refugee status over the last year," said Sui Khar, an India-based Chin social activist who was in Kuala Lumpur recently. "Weaker Claims" Asked about these charges, the UNHCR office in Kuala Lumpur denied that it applies rules any differently from the agency’s other offices. "I have compared cases with the UNHCR India protection officer and there is not much difference in the criteria that we apply. There is less than five percent discrepancy," said KL-based protection officer Shinji Kubo when interviewed recently. "The rate of approval is lower in Malaysia because many of the applicants have weaker claims. If they have the same claims, they will be recognized here as well." According to the Kubo, the UNHCR is mandated to offer protection only to those who are able to prove they have a "well-founded" fear of persecution if they are returned to their country of origin. "However, we suspect that among the reasons that many of them have arrived in Malaysia are the economic and employment opportunities. Many arrived in 1995 or 1996, when there was economic development, but they did not approach UNHCR until recently because they did not need UNHCR then," he added in reference to the Chin immigrants. "The office in New Delhi has recognized many Chin refugees since the early 1990s who are given residential status in India. Their presence in India is highly regularized because the Indian government tries to accommodate them. Why do they go to somewhere unfriendly and not to a friendly place?" However, when it comes to the Muslim Rohingyas, who are distinct in their plight as a people who have been denied citizenship status by the Burmese government, the refugee agency faces a different dilemma. The Rohingyas faced religious persecution from Rangoon’s military regime. "The Rohingya are a de facto stateless people… The UNHCR cannot declare who is stateless and who is not. They have not been declared [as such] by the Burmese government.


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