New Delhi (Mizzima) – More than 50 Arakanese held a protest outside the UN refugee organisation’s office in the Malaysian capital on Monday, alleging its discrimination against the Burmese ethnic group.
The demonstrators at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees office in Kuala Lumpur called for the office to recognise the more than 10,000 Arakanese in Malaysia as legitimate refugees and supply aid to those in immigration detention camps. They also sought an Arakanese translator at the office.
A day after the protest, the UNHCR reported on its website’s news section that it had recently flown 38 ethnic Kachin Burmese refugees from Malaysia to Romania.
Meanwhile, the New Straits Times reported on Monday that Saturday night’s three-hour riot at an immigration detention camp in Ajil, in the eastern peninsula state of Terengganu was sparked by a fight between two groups of Vietnamese and Burmese detainees, immigration officials told the newspaper on Sunday.
But state police chief Shukri Dahlan reportedly said that almost 200 men from Vietnam and Burma “turned aggressive after what they claimed was mistreatment at the camp”, the paper reported, without details of the abuses.
The 1951 Refugee Convention is “the key legal document in defining who is a refugee, their rights and the legal obligations of states”, according to the UN.
Article 1 of the convention says a refugee is a person who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country…”
Min Min Htun, one of the leaders of the protest outside the UNHCR offices, told Mizzima: “The UNHCR office in Malaysia has recognised other ethnic people from Burma as refugees but the Arakanese people are being discriminated against … that’s why we are … [here today].
“Moreover, the Arakanese people who have been in detention camps have been ignored by the UNHCR,” he said. “And no Arakanese translator was appointed in the UNHCR office, so we [also] have language barriers to deal with.”
The protesters submitted a letter to the office and UN staff promised to consider their demands “as soon as possible”.
Between 2004 and 2008, Arakanese people had been recognised as refugees but since that period their right to apply for refugee status had been denied, according to the demonstrators.
Just 1,700 of the 15,000 Arakanese in Malaysia have been registered as asylum-seekers (UN definition: a person who has left their country of origin, has applied for recognition as a refugee in another country, and is awaiting a decision on their application) by the UNHCR Malaysia office, and 250 have been resettled in safe third countries, the Arakan Refugee Relief Committee, based in Kuala Lumpur, said. Around 300 Arakanese are in detention camps around Malaysia.
Tun Win Nyunt, a Burmese human rights activist in Malaysia, also accused the UN of bias in dealing with the ethnic group.
“We don’t have even the right to apply for refugee status, so we asked the office [why],” he said. “Their answer is … because we have Burmese passports and we can go back to Burma … Their answer is very general [vague].”
A Chin Refugee Committee (Malaysia) spokesman said: “We [too] have noticed that Burmese and Arakanese people are not being recognised as refugees, but I don’t know the reason.”
Mizzima phoned UNHCR Malaysia but its spokeswoman Yante Ismail was unable to provide answers, citing a lack of detailed knowledge of the situation.
However, the UNHCR yesterday reported in its website’s news section that on May 31 and June 1 a group of 38 Burmese refugees, all ethnic Kachin, had been flown to Bucharest, Romania from Malaysia in a resettlement organised with the Romanian immigration department and Red Cross.
Romania had become one of the few countries in the world to accept refugees for resettlement, it said.
“The refugees, including eight children, flew to Bucharest from Malaysia on May 31 and June 1 under legislation adopted by Romania in December 2008,” the report said. “This provides for Romania to accept up to 40 refugees for resettlement each year.”
In the report, UNHCR officer in Romania Machiel Salomons said it had been forced to enhance its resettlement efforts, adding that “Romania’s contribution in this regard is both timely and very much appreciated.”
The Kachin group were staying at the Regional Centre for Accommodation and Asylum Procedures in Galati, a city in eastern Romania, run by the Romanian Immigration Office, the UN said.
“Romania also hosts a landmark Emergency Transit Centre, which was opened in the city of Timisoara in late 2008 to provide a temporary haven for refugees in urgent need of evacuation from their first asylum countries due to life-threatening conditions,” the report said. “More than 600 refugees have transited the centre.”
Of the 87,700 refugees or asylum-seekers registered with the UN in Malaysia, 81,200 are from Burma, comprising some 39,100 Chins, 18,800 Rohingya, 5,900 Burmese Muslims, 3,800 Mon, 3,600 Kachin, and the remaining are other ethnic minorities from Burma, according to the website of the UNHCR Malaysia.
Other refugees were from Sri Lanka, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan. Some 70 per cent of refugees or asylum-seekers were men, while 30 per cent were women, the website said. There were some 19,000 children aged less than 18.
Malaysia refused to sign the 1951 Refugee Convention. That refusal and the lack of legislation ratifying the convention of the kind adopted by Romania in 2008 means that the country arrests and jails refugees, asylum-seekers and stateless people. Illegal migrant workers have also been detained.
The junta’s confiscation of lands, recruitment of child soldiers, rape carried out by its army, forced labour, forced relocation, brutal repression of dissent and ethnic minority rights, unjust laws, inadequate infrastructure and abysmal health care are just some of the many reasons that thousands of Burmese people have fled to neighbouring or regional countries for asylum or just a livelihood.