By MARINA LITVINSKY / IPS WRITER
WASHINGTON — The mistreatment of Burmese migrants, asylum seekers and refugees in Malaysia is the focus of a report released Thursday by the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.
After receiving disturbing reports of trafficking in 2007, committee staff conducted a year-long review of the allegations. The report, "Trafficking and Extortion of Burmese Migrants in Malaysia and Southern Thailand," is based on first person accounts of extortion and trafficking in Malaysia and along the Malaysia-Thailand border. Committee information comes from experiences of Burmese refugees resettled in the United States and other countries.
Many Burmese migrants, escaping extensive human rights abuses perpetrated by the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) and the Burmese military junta, travel to Malaysia to register with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), for resettlement to a third country, according to the report.
Once in Malaysia, Burmese migrants are often arrested by Malaysian authorities, whether or not they have registered with the UNHCR and have identification papers. Burmese migrants are reportedly taken by Malaysian government personnel from detention facilities to the Malaysia-Thailand border for deportation.
Upon arrival at the Malaysia-Thailand border, human traffickers reportedly take possession of the migrants and issue ransom demands on an individual basis. Migrants state that freedom is possible only once money demands are met. Specific payment procedures are outlined, which reportedly include bank accounts in Kuala Lumpur to which money should be transferred.
It has become commonplace for the authorities to use the vigilante RELA force to periodically arrest and "deport" Rohingyas, a Muslim minority, but since Burma does not recognize them as citizens, the practice is to take them to the Bukit Kayu Hitam area on the Thai-Malaysia border and force them to cross over into Thailand.
Migrants state that those unable to pay are turned over to human peddlers in Thailand, representing a variety of business interests from fishing boats to brothels.
Human rights activists have long charged that immigration, police and other enforcement officials, have been "trading" Rohingyas to human traffickers in Thailand who then pass them on to deep sea fishing trawler operators in the South China Sea.
"People seeking refuge from oppression in Burma are being abused by Malaysian government officials and human traffickers," said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
The committee has received numerous reports of sexual assaults against Burmese women by human traffickers along the border. One non-profit organization official states that "Most young women deported to the Thai border are sexually abused, even in front of their husbands, by the syndicates, since no one dares to intervene as they would be shot or stabbed to death in the jungle." Women are generally sold into the sex industry.
"(The Burmese refugees) are treated as a commodity and frequently bought and sold and we have been condemning this practice for a long time," Irene Fernandez, executive director of Tenaganita, a non-profit group that protects migrant workers, told IPS in January. "Our demands have always fallen on deaf ears despite the accumulating evidence of the involvement of uniformed officials in the trade."
The report, the first of three, states that Malaysia does not officially recognize refugees, due in part to concern by the government that official recognition of refugees would encourage more people to enter Malaysia, primarily for economic reasons. Also, Malaysian officials view migrants as a threat to Malaysia's national security.
"Malaysia does not recognize key international agreements on the protection of refugees and foreign nationals. Nor does it apply to foreign migrants the same rights and legal protections given to Malaysian citizens," Fernandez said.
Foreign labor is an integral building block of Malaysia's upward economic mobility. While Malaysia's total workforce is 11.3 million, there are approximately 2.1 million legal foreign workers and an additional one million illegal workers, though no accurate information is available.
While Malaysia accepts the presence of Burmese and others from outside of the country for the purpose of contributing to the work force, persons identified as refugees and asylum seekers on their way to a third country are viewed as threats to national security.
In an interview with The New York Times, RELA's director-general, Zaidon Asmuni, said, "We have no more Communists at the moment, but we are now facing illegal immigrants. As you know, in Malaysia, illegal immigrants are enemy No. 2."
Many of the approximately 40,000 Burmese refugees who have resettled in the United States since 1995 have come via Malaysia.
In August 2008, committee staff met separately with officials in Malaysia's immigration department and the prime minister's office, to convey the committee's concern regarding the extortion and trafficking allegations. Immigration Director-General Datuk Mahmood Bin Adam and long-time immigration enforcement official Datuk Ishak Haji Mohammed denied the allegations of mistreatment against Burmese migrants at the hands of immigration and other Malaysian officials.
As reported recently in the Malaysia Star, "Home Minister Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar also denied claims that thousands of illegal foreigners held at detention centres were 'being sold off' to human trafficking syndicates. 'I take offence with the allegation because neither the Malaysian Government nor its officials make money by selling people.'"
However, according to the report, on April 1, 2009, Inspector-General of Police Tan Sri Musa Hassan stated that an investigation has been launched.
The flow of refugees from Burma to Thailand, Malaysia and other countries has cost Burma's neighbors millions of dollars in food and humanitarian assistance. The committee calls on officials of impacted Asean countries to measure the financial cost of hosting refugees displaced from Burma, and to request financial compensation from Burma's military junta for costs incurred in caring for the refugees.
It asks the government of Malaysia to address the trafficking, selling and slavery of Burmese and other migrants within Malaysia and across its border with Thailand. As a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), Malaysia is urged to consider alternatives to detention for refugees and asylum seekers, especially for women and children.
"Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak should act on this US Senate report to protect the rights of refugees and victims of human trafficking," said HRW's Pearson.
The report advises the US, in coordination with other donor countries, to continue providing funds to facilitate sharing of information on human trafficking among authorities of Thailand and Malaysia; and to provide technical and other assistance to the governments of Malaysia and Thailand so that the trafficking of Burmese and other migrants may be more actively pursued and prosecuted.