Refugee unrest in Malaysia after deportation bungle


By Kirsty Needham, The Sydney Morning Herald

THE United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Malaysia has admitted thousands of refugees have been incorrectly issued letters by the Malaysian government marked ”return to home country”, raising widespread fears of deportation.

The Refugee Convention principle of ”non-refoulement”, and Malaysia’s commitment that 800 refugees from Australia would not be returned to the country from which they fled, underpin the federal government’s defence to a High Court challenge to the Malaysia deal.

Up to 10,000 refugees descended on an immigration office in Putrajaya, a suburb of the capital, Kuala Lumpur, on Tuesday after the UNHCR was told, at late notice by the Malaysian government, that refugees must immediately register under a new biometric system designed to record illegal and legal migrant workers. Witnesses who spoke to the Herald said RELA – the vigilante force that was banished from Malaysian streets this year because of human rights concerns – was then called in by the immigration department as chaos erupted.

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A co-ordinator of the Malaysian human rights group Suaram, Andika Wahab, told the Herald that the situation was shocking and he saw RELA members carrying sticks. ”I didn’t see RELA beat individuals, but I saw RELA hit the wall and push people. The situation was very overcrowded,” he said.

The refugees became alarmed at about 4pm when it was realised that, after having their fingerprints taken, some were being issued letters stamped: ”Return to home country”.

”They feared they would be deported to Burma,” he said.

A spokeswoman for the UNHCR in Malaysia, Yante Ismail, said the document should have been given only to migrant workers, and not refugees.

”When the UNHCR learnt about this yesterday, we immediately raised this matter with the government, who will now rectify the document for all UNHCR-registered refugees and asylum seekers,” she said.

”Understandably this has created confusion among refugees and asylum seekers, and this has created great anxiety among this population,” Ms Ismail said.

She said the force used by Malaysian police was proportionate. She said the police had taken women, children and the elderly to the front of the line to avoid physical danger.

Because ”overwhelming numbers” turned up on Tuesday, refugees would now be processed in batches instead, she said.

Refugee groups said yesterday they still had not received an explanation for the letters.

Dr Irene Fernandez, the executive director of the refugee group, Tenaganita, said it was ”problematic” that refugees were given the wrong letters.

Dr Fernandez said RELA ”became quite abusive, started pushing them and not treating them well”.

The opposition immigration spokesman, Scott Morrison, was kicked out of Federal Parliament yesterday after questioning the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, over a Malaysian website report that RELA had beaten ”children, mothers and the elderly” in the queue. He later said, ”the beatings that have been reported and the fact that refugees have gone to be registered and received papers that say: ‘Return to home country’,” were serious issues for the Malaysia swap.

The Greens Senator, Sarah Hanson-Young, said: ”there is no guarantee people who are found by the UNHCR to be refugees in need of protection will not be returned to their home country at the whim of the Malaysian government.”

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