The Sun Daily (Used by permission)
by Husna Yusop and Pauline Wong
by Husna Yusop and Pauline Wong
PUTRAJAYA (Oct 18, 2011): Home Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein has clarified that the 1,000 Myanmar detainees who will be sent back to their country under a recent exchange agreement are not asylum seekers or refugees.
He said he checked their status with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) before finalising the matter with Myanmar Deputy Foreign Minister U Maung Myint yesterday.
“It is not true. They are not asylum seekers. I have talked to the UNHCR and made it clear that we are not going to stop those who are really eligible for refugee status.
“But, at the same time, do not use the refugee status as an excuse to dump so many people who are not eligible in our country. This would create a bigger problem in future,” he said.
Speaking to reporters at the ministry after a weekly meeting with immigration directors here today, Hishammuddin said there are about 94,000 asylum seekers in Malaysia but those listed in the exchange are not under the UNHCR’s watch.
He was responding to concerns raised by NGOs Migrant Care Malaysia and Tenaganita, who claimed that most Myanmar nationals came to Malaysia as refugees or were seeking political asylum, having fled their country to escape persecution.
Yesterday, Hishammuddin said both countries have agreed in principle to exchange detainees – those detained for various immigration related offences - to help reduce congestion at immigration depots.
He said the claims by the NGOs were made based on political considerations, adding the ministry has yet to identify the number of Malaysians currently detained in Myanmar.
He said Myanmar nationals are the third biggest group of foreigners in the country now and Myanmar government’s commitment is important in identifying and deporting those who are not supposed to be here.
“We don’t want to see Malaysia as a transit country or shelter for terrorists, drug smugglers and those taking advantage of the refugee status to do things which are clearly against the law,” he said.
Meanwhile, the UNHCR, in a statement, encouraged all governments to manage migration in a manner that is protection-sensitive towards those who wish to seek asylum.
“This holds true for Malaysia as well. It means that individuals who may be subject to arrest, detention and deportation for immigration offenses have the opportunity to seek asylum and to have their claims considered,” UNHCR spokesman here Yante Ismail said today.
She added that Malaysia cooperates with UNHCR on this issue and allows access to individuals so the agency can determine if they are eligible for asylum.
For those who have legitimate claims, UNHCR seeks their release from detention while their claims are being considered.
“On the matter of deportation, UNHCR reminds all Governments, including Malaysia, that refugees and asylum-seekers should benefit from the fundamental principle of non-refoulement and should not be deported to a country where their human rights might be at risk,” she said.
(Non-refoulement is a principle in refugee law that concerns the protection of refugees from being returned to places where their lives or freedoms could be threatened.)
The Bar Council, meanwhile, said it welcomed the Malaysian-Myanmar immigrant swap, but urged caution.
Its president, Lim Chee Wee, the arrangement must still live up to the highest humanitarian standards.
"Care needs to be taken to ensure that those returned to Myanmar will not in turn be subjected to retributive or punitive action by their own government," he said.
This is because there is no mention of any monitoring mechanism, nor whether any determination has been made by an Office of the UNHCR on whether any of the detainees returned was a genuine asylum seeker.
"This swap must also fulfill the need for a wider and more comprehensive regional mechanism for freedom of movement of nationals from one ASEAN member country to another," he added.