Sunday, December 19, 2010

Caning to Refugees continues in Malaysia

KUALA LUMPUR: Caning will remain as a form of punishment in Malaysia as the government sees no hurry to review the controversial practice.

Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz, the minister in charge of law affairs, said the matter had not been raised at the Cabinet level.
“It (judicial caning) remains for now. If it needs to be reviewed, it will be discussed in Cabinet, but it has not been brought up. We’ll just wait and see,” he told The Malay Mail.
The Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department was responding to a call made by human rights group Amnesty International urging Malaysia to abolish the punishment.
Amnesty’s Asia-Pacific programme researcher Lance Latigg had told a Press conference here the practice was a “severe violation of human rights”.
The London-based group, in its recently released book A Blow to Humanity: Torture by Judicial Caning in Malaysia, claimed up to 10,000 prisoners in Malaysia were caned every year, with 6,000 being illegal immigrants from neighbouring countries.The group also urged neighbouring countries such as Indonesia to pressure Malaysia into abolishing judicial caning.
Nazri, however, said Amnesty could lobby for other countries to pressure Malaysia.
“Latigg spoke to me. He said he would raise this issue with Indonesia and other countries. That is not a problem. They have every right to do so. However, only we have the right to make decisions in this country. Other people cannot dictate that to us.”
Malaysia attracted international attention after Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarno, a Muslim woman, was sentenced to six strokes of the rotan and a fine last year for consuming alcohol in public. The case received hostile response, especially from human rights groups and women’s rights activists. Kartika’s sentence was eventually reduced to community service.
Singapore too attracted widespread condemnation in 1994 when American teenager Michael Fay, then 18, was sentenced to six lashes upon pleading guilty to vandalism after confessing to spray-painting and tossing eggs at several vehicles.

Spare the whip, say NGOs

KUALA LUMPUR: Human rights activists want the government to abolish caning as a form of  punishment.
Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) told The Malay Mail they were opposed to de facto law minister Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz's stand on continuing with caning sentences.
Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) commissioner Muhammad Sha'ani Abdullah said: "Malaysia, as a member of the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council, is expected to ratify and comply with international human rights conventions, so the argument that Malaysia adopts 'progressive realisation' is not a reasonable defence to delay ratification of conventions against torture.
"There is no advantage for Malaysia in avoiding the ratification, and it is also in line with the government's 'People First, Performance Now' promise."
Tenaganita director Irene Fernandez, whose organisation promotes the rights of women, migrants and refugees, said: "We have said for a long time that caning is wrong. Caning has become a tool of torture. We believe offences under the Immigration Act is not crime as offenders usually had no proper documents or overstayed. Caning of such offenders is not just unfair, it is torture.
"Back when the law against human trafficking was enacted, there was no whipping punishment for traffickers. At the time, Nazri himself said there was no whipping because according to the UN, it is wrong. So, caning as a form of punishment should be abolished."
Suara Rakyat Malaysia (Suaram) chairman K. Arumugam said: "We support Amnesty International's call for Malaysia to abolish caning. Suaram is against capital and corporal punishment as it is contrary to our constitutional guarantee of the right to life."

Malaysia struggles to meet refugee needs: rights report

Chiang Mai (Mizzima) – The government of Malaysia remains delinquent in meeting the needs of refugees seeking greener pastures, including Burmese, finds the latest study on the status of refugee needs in the Southeast Asian state.

Suara Rakyat Malaysia (Suaram), or Voice of the Malaysian People, a Malaysian civil and political rights group, in its 2010 overview chastises Kuala Lumpur for failing to do enough to satisfy the rights of those either seeking temporary or permanent asylum in the country or victims of human trafficking.

“Although the government appears to have the intention of seeking ways to deal with this population [refugees], violations of refugee rights continue to occur,” the report’s authors concluded. 

Thousands of Burmese are among the over 90,000 refugees registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Malaysia.

On June 12 of 2010, according to the report, Suaram “was informed that an estimated 500 Burmese detainees at Lenggeng Immigration Detention Centre [southeast of Kuala Lumpur in the state of Negeri Simbalan] went on hunger strike … to protest against the lack of water supply which had been going on for five days. However, it was reported that the Immigration Department denied that there was a lack of water supply at the detention centre”.

The incident followed a February occurrence at the same location over which the Burmese leader of a hunger strike was detained for seven months, though the UNHCR was able to visit the centre shortly after the onset of the protest, securing the release of 106 refugees.

In January this year, 26 Burmese asylum-seekers were arrested by Malaysian authorities upon trying to enter the country, allegedly being denied their basic rights as asylum-seekers in proceeding developments.

Suaram believes the behaviour of the Malaysian authorities is consistent with Kuala Lumpur exhibiting little interest in ratifying the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 protocol, or introducing domestic legislation to recognise the status of refugees.

“Due to the lack of legal status, refugees continue to face denial of basic rights,” continues the rights’ group’s assessment.

Moreover, as of this year, the trafficking of Burmese refugees by Malaysian immigration officers was reportedly still occurring, while in March four Burmese destined for Australia were discovered at Kuala Lumpur International Airport as part of a human-trafficking scheme, the report said.

Suaram said the trafficking victims were then subjected to detention centres in violation of the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act 2007, which stipulates such individuals be placed in shelters as opposed to detention centres.

Overall, the report finds that despite the optimism surrounding the advent of the Malaysian government of Prime Minister Najib Razak, which observers had hoped would place greater emphasis on the realisation of human rights when he took office in April last year, “all the incidents and controversies that have happened in 2010 signal a return to the Mahathir era, a period of stifling control, abuse of powers and suppression of human rights”.

Dr. Mahathir Mohamad served as prime minister from 1981 to 2003 and remains a complex political character, including in developments related to social and civil rights.

Suaram also contends the Malaysian Election Commission has thus far refused to take issue with allegations of illegal electoral conduct by Najib’s ruling party, which opponents say has offered preferential treatment in return for voter favouritism, especially during May’s by-elections in the region of Sibu. 

In Burma’s national elections last month, the junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party was widely accused of using similar illegal electoral tactics to sway voter allegiance.

Meanwhile, in another apparent signal of abuse of power by the Najib government, Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and three allies were suspended from parliament for six months yesterday, in votes that triggered pandemonium and an opposition walkout, the Australian broadcaster ABC News reported online.

“Anwar, who is also facing trial on sodomy charges that he says are a political conspiracy, was this week found guilty by parliament of misleading members in a row over a national unity slogan,” the ABC reported.

The suspension came after he had criticised the Najib government’s One Malaysia banner aimed at promoting unity in the multiracial nation, saying it had been taken from the 1999 One Israel political bloc of former Israeli leader Ehud Barak, the report said.

The charge is highly sensitive in the predominately Muslim country, which has no diplomatic relations with Israel and supports a Palestinian state.

The government on Wednesday also cited three senior opposition MPs for contempt for criticising the parliamentary disciplinary probe against Anwar, and demanded that they also serve six-month suspensions.

“It’s so clear, it’s blatantly biased,” Anwar told ABC after the vote in the Malaysian Parliament, where Najib’s ruling coalition has a clear majority. “It’s a mockery of the entire proceedings.”

Chaotic scenes filled the house where debate was drowned out by 30 minutes of shouting, and opposition lawmakers displayed signs reading “Save the Parliament” and “Rule of kangaroo”.

They later walked out, chanting “shame on you”, the report said.

Anwar was once a deputy prime minister to Mahathir in the ruling coalition but his attacks against alleged culture of nepotism and cronyism within the ruling UMNO party and the ruling coalition as a whole angered his former mentor. He was sacked and jailed a decade ago on separate sodomy and corruption charges, widely seen as politically motivated.

Refugees are facing Caning in Malaysia

Despite the fact that under international law corporal punishment is "clearly illegal" and "amounts to torture", Malaysian law not only provides for punishment by caning (known as 'whipping') for at least 66 offences but Malaysian authorities have in recent years even further expanded the list of offences punishable by caning to include illegal entry into the country and drug abuse, stress MEPs in their resolution.

Strongly condemning all forms of corporal punishment including caning, which they classify as "a remnant of colonial rule", MEPs urges Malaysia to enact a moratorium on caning and all forms of corporal punishment in all cases, with a view to their abolition in law and in practice.

Furthermore, Parliament calls on Malaysia, as a member of UN Human Rights Council, to ratify the UN Convention against Torture and its Optional Protocol and to amend Malaysian law so that immigration offences are treated as administrative offences, rather than crimes punishable by imprisonment or corporal punishment, and that drug-related offences are no longer punishable by caning.

Internal Displacement and Refugee Status Determination

By Khalid Koser 

In 2009 922,500 asylum claims were submitted in 159 countries or territories around the world, according to statistics from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The USA received the second highest number at 47,900 applicants, behind South Africa with a staggering 222,000 applicants. Other significant destination countries were Malaysia (40,100) and Ecuador (35,500). With growing numbers of asylum applications (the number in 2009 comprised the third consecutive annual rise), and an increasing proportion of asylum seekers headed for new countries often in the global South, there is rising pressure on the process of Refugee Status Determination (RSD) – that is determining which asylum seekers are and are not entitled to refugee status. A robust RSD process is a fundamental part of a national refugee policy, which must begin with determining which people should have access to limited resources for protection and assistance. And getting it wrong can be life-threatening, especially where it culminates in the return of people who have been rejected by the process to situations where their lives or liberty are in fact in danger. UNHCR conducted RSD either unilaterally or jointly with national governments for 145,000 asylum claims in 2009, meaning that the majority – 777,400 – were processed by national governments alone.
Even in those states with significant experience and well-developed laws and policies for assessing asylum claims, there is often a basic lack of understanding of internal displacement in the RSD process. At first sight this appears logical. Internal displacement concerns people who have moved involuntarily inside their own countries as Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), whereas by definition refugee status can only be granted to someone who has crossed an international border, and furthermore is fleeing a far more proscribed set of threats than that which applies to IDPs. Yet understanding internal displacement can be critically important for getting RSD right.
First, there is evidence from around the world that IDPs may be at risk of persecution specifically as a result of being internally displaced; in other words not necessarily because of their religion, or ethnicity, or political group, but because they have relocated within their own country. A recent report by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) on internally displaced women in eastern Chad provides a concrete example. It documents widespread violence at the hands of armed militias and bandits and government troops. But to proceed with a legal case, victims of sexual violence need a medical certificate, which IDPs usually cannot get as they are rarely registered with local medical authorities. Furthermore mobile courts where their cases would presumably be heard only visit eastern Chad once a year; moreover government authorities have not implemented laws to prohibit violence against displaced women and girls, or investigated and prosecuted those responsible. Another example comes from an NRC report on the situation of children displaced by conflict in north-west Pakistan, which finds that displaced children are particularly at risk of abuse, exploitation, and neglect, and that their situation has been inadequately monitored by national, provincial or district governments.
Where IDPs subsequently leave the country and apply for asylum, which is reported to be a rising trend in sub-Saharan Africa, for example, an understanding of their circumstances as IDPs is clearly pertinent for RSD, although by no means is the relationship categorical. In the case of displaced women in eastern Chad, an argument might be made that they had no recourse to national authorities to protect themselves against sexual violence, and thus had grounds to be considered for refugee status. How an IDP child from north-west Pakistan applying for asylum would be assessed is less clear, as arguably the vulnerability he or she was at risk of does not amount to persecution and would not satisfy the criteria of the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees.
Further complexity arises where IDPs are not fleeing conflict or persecution at home, but for example the effects of natural disasters, which are recognized by the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement as a cause of internal displacement, but not by the 1951 Convention, as legitimate grounds for refugee status. Yet such IDPs may also face persecution as a result of becoming displaced, prior to seeking asylum. This would give rise to the unusual situation where had a person fled the effects of a natural disaster directly to claim asylum they would not have been granted refugee status, but because they have fled internally first and as a result become at threat of persecution, they might.
A second intersection between RSD and internal displacement relates to return. The 1951 Convention and international law more broadly are clear that a person cannot be returned to their country of origin if their human rights would be at risk there, even if they have not been granted refugee status. This is one reason for the growth in complementary statuses – such as Temporary Protected Status (TPS) in the USA – granted to people who do not satisfy the criteria for refugee status but cannot safely go home at the moment. In response, a growing number of states – including the USA – are increasingly invoking the 'internal flight alternative' (IFA) or 'internal protection principle' when conducting RSD, according to which an asylum applicant needs to demonstrate that he or she will be at risk not only in his or her home area, but also that they are unable to escape the persecution or threat by relocating elsewhere in the country.
This raises the possibility that an asylum seeker can be returned to a location other than his or her home area in the country of origin. In other words an asylum seeker would effectively be returned to a situation of internal displacement. In 2010, a number of European governments, for example, have returned Iraqi asylum seekers to Baghdad and Afghan asylum seekers to Kabul, on the grounds that they would be safe in the capital city, even if this was not their home. Yet as explained above, there is a risk that such people would face risks directly as a result of being internally displaced – and in the case of return this may well be compounded by specific risks experienced in certain countries by returnees from abroad, including discrimination in official processes and limits on freedom of movement. (Elizabeth Ferris' 2008 article 'Internal Displacement and the Right to Seek Asylum', in Refugee Survey Quarterly, expands this argument).
A specific example is from Mazar-i-Sharif Province in Afghanistan, where in order to gain access to land, people need a guarantee from the village council to prove ownership of or permission to use the land. But only repatriated persons whose place of origin in Mazar-i-Sharif are entitled to this permission – new arrivals who do not originally come from the area cannot get permission. Other reports from Afghanistan demonstrate that it is virtually impossible to survive economically in any town or city without an established social network, and that this leaves single women in particular vulnerable. On the other hand there have been recent examples – in Somalia, Sri Lanka, and Sudan for example – where asylum seekers have been returned to areas other than their homes in their country of origin, and have resettled there with the assistance of international organizations and their government.
Both the principle and the implementation of the concept of IFA have therefore been inconsistent. UNHCR does provide guidelines on IFA, but it is worth reiterating that UNHCR is only directly involved in a minority of RSD processes around the world. Elsewhere the IFA principle has developed in a somewhat ad hoc manner through international and national jurisprudence, academic analyses and governmental and intergovernmental policy statements, and has given rise to problems of interpretation and application by national courts.
Even if only a small proportion of asylum seekers were previously Internally Displaced Persons; and even if the 'Internal Flight Alternative' applies to a relatively small number of people, in both cases individuals face a genuine threat to their human rights if the Refugee Status Determination procedure does not properly account for internal displacement. There is a need for all states, and especially those with relatively little experience of RSD, properly to integrate an understanding of internal displacement in RSD procedures, especially given the complexity of the relationship between RSD and internal displacement. Immediate steps might include providing training for case officers; ensuring that the Country of Origin Information used to provide evidence in assessing asylum cases includes adequate coverage of internal displacement; and incorporating UNHCR IFA guidelines. In the longer term it would be helpful to promote closer cooperation between the government ministries, departments, or agencies that deal – almost always separately - with asylum and internal displacement.
Khalid Koser is a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and also serves as Academic Dean ahe Geneva Centre for Security Policy. 

Source :

Monday, December 13, 2010

Burmese refugees' Christmas story

Duncan MacLaren December 13, 2010

'Burmese Christmas' by Chris JohnstonI am in Ranong and cannot sleep. For the geographically challenged, think Isthmus of Kra in southern Thailand at the point where Burma ends and Muslim Thailand begins, going down to Malaysia. I am in the Marist Fathers' house.
Outside, the fish factory that never sleeps is churning out packaged prawns for markets far away. The people working in it are illegal migrants from Burma, paid a pittance and treated as sub humans. As illegals, they can be arrested by the Thai police but usually pay a 'fine' to escape jail — for a while.
Young Burmese men as young as 15 and 16 come off the fishing boats owned by Thai or Burmese entrepreneurs, their pockets brimming with baht, swagger in their step, and head for the tiny brothels by the side of the road near the port, where HIV awaits them.
Only the strong return from the fishing trips. If you are ill and cannot work, you can be tipped into the sea along with the other rubbish for the seagulls. If you trip and fall overboard, the boat ploughs on regardless.
Young Burmese women in longyi, with long, black hair tied in a ponytail, stand out and can be abducted by men in dark glasses in passing cars and taken to the brothels and bars of Phuket, Bangkok or Pattaya. Being illegal with no papers or rights, they disappear, to the despair of their parents. It's part of the dangerous deal of crossing the border from a regime that regards most of its people as scum to a country where a subsistence income can at least be earned.
HIV is rife here — among the Thai and the Burmese. The Global Fund gives money to Thailand for those living with the virus but Thai doctors in Ranong, which has more Burmese than Thai, say the cash for anti-retrovirals is only for Thais. So the Burmese die. A few are saved by the Marists among other religious groups with funds from an NGO. But who decides who lives and who dies?
A young Burmese boy of nine who was found abandoned in the forest and then cared for by a poor Burmese family with support from the Marists plays with the priest's big toe. He ran away again but promised he wouldn't do it in future if 'Father' bought him a TV. He is not quite ready for the factory or the fishing boats and is desperately vulnerable.
A young girl of 15 dressed in a school uniform, her hair cut short like a Thai to escape abduction, is too young for the ACU online diploma but asks to attend anyway to learn, just to be part of the dream of having higher education. She is lucky that her parents don't force her into the fish factory.
We visit a young fishermen and his wife in a wooden warren of tiny hovels for the dispossessed. It leans over the water so that when the Thai police come they can abandon their few possessions (an ancient black and white TV, a few dishes, a mattress) and dive into the river to escape the fine/bribe.
Both have HIV and they lost their baby to the virus the year before. They show us a grainy picture of the child, beautiful as all infants are, and we are stunned into silence. The dignity of the couple in their immense human suffering awes us.
A few hours south of here, tourists soak up the sun on the beaches of Ko Samui, Phuket and the islands of the film, The Beach. In the lead-up to Christmas, the contrast is striking.
In Ranong, through an open door, I see a Burmese woman in the lotus position meditating and venerating the Buddha, hoping the next incarnation will be better than the misery of this existence, as a beatific smile crosses her face.
Happy Christmas. 

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Malaysia boosts security corps accused of abuses

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Malaysia is expanding a volunteer security corps accused of human rights abuses and adding to its responsibities even though the new recruits won't be trained for now, the corps leader said Thursday.
The government-backed corps, known by its acronym RELA, is meant to help police and other authorities conduct neighborhood patrols and track down foreigners living in Malaysia without valid documents.
But activists have insisted in recent years that the Home Ministry should disband the force of 1.6 million volunteers because many have been accused of extorting money from illegal immigrants and physically abusing them.
Zaidon Asmuni, RELA's director general, said the corps is now trying to boost its membership to 2.6 million volunteers by the end of this year to better combat crime and take up new tasks such as guarding immigration detention centers in this nation of some 28 million people.
"In the whole country, I have instructed my men to go all out" to hold recruitment drives for new members who are at least 16 years old, Zaidon told The Associated Press.
The corps will not be able to train for all of them but believes the risk is low, he said.
"As in any department, most of them are very good. But maybe one or two are black sheep. It happens anywhere," he said.
Anyone who commits an offense would face suspension and possibly a police investigation. Though most members undergo a one-day orientation course, only some 8,000 members can be trained thoroughly each year, Zaidon said.
Hundreds of volunteers have recently been deployed to guard detention centers for illegal immigrants following the escape of 20 Afghans from one such location earlier this month, Zaidon said.
Temme Lee, an official with Malaysian human rights group Suaram, said foreigners complained of extortion by RELA members almost every day.
"The increase of RELA's role is very worrying," Lee said. "It's not right that a volunteer force should be used for enforcement."
In a report last June about refugees in Malaysia, rights group Amnesty International said "largely untrained RELA agents frequently subject the people they arrest to humiliation, physical abuse, theft and extortion."

Amnesty Urges Malaysian Government to Stop Caning

Advocating children's rights

Children’s rights take the spotlight at this year’s Human Rights Day celebration in Malaysia, which falls today.

IN an ideal world, parents and guardians of children function as their protectors. Yet the cruel reality is that parents themselves can turn out to be a child’s worst nightmare, either through outright physical abuse or more subtle, but no less hurtful, forms of abuse ranging from neglect to emotional abuse.
“It is sad that we see that in many cases of abuse, the perpetrators are the parents themselves. But there is not enough analysis on why that happens,” said Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir, who was roped in by the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) to be one of the advocates for this year’s campaign targeting child abuse called “Get On Board”.
“When I read child abuse cases in the newspapers, I automatically look at the ages of the parents. Invariably, they are young, mostly in their 20s, and they tend to have not just one child, but several. And when you look at the age of their eldest child, you can see that they had the child very early in life, dating back to their teenage years,” said Marina in an interview at Wisma UN, Kuala Lumpur, on Monday.

“The 20s are a time of enjoyment, of exploration, of having fun with your friends. But when you have to handle a crying child at home, among other responsibilities that come with being a parent, it is understandable that frustrations can arise,” said Marina, a mother of three who is quick to add that this is not to imply that all young parents will end up being child abusers.
“Parenting is a huge responsibility, even if you get married in your 30s. Imagine if you are still somewhat a child yourself,” said Marina in addressing the issue of marrying young.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child as well as Malaysia’s Child Act 2001 both state that a child is anyone under 18 years old. Just last Saturday, the wedding of 14-year-old Siti Maryam Mahmod to a 23-year-old teacher was celebrated at the Federal Territory Mosque in Kuala Lumpur, along with 249 other couples. The groom is described as a family friend, and apparently, the girl’s parents liked him very much to the extent they decided to “matchmake” them.
To the Government’s credit, it has made known its stand that it does not condone child marriages – or at least, this is what Women, Family and Community Development Minister Datuk Seri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil had said when asked about the latest incident. She remarked that Siti Maryam is still a child, even though she may have the Syariah Court’s permission to get married, and that the Government will look into the matter. Currently, Muslim girls below 16 can marry with the Syariah Court’s consent while non-Muslim girls between 16 and 18 can marry with the approval of the Mentri Besar or Chief Minister.
Marina was more forthright: “Such marriages constitute a form of abuse, and I hope that Shahrizat holds her ground. The act of marrying off a child is denying a child his or her complete childhood. And children having children, this is a form of abuse as well.
“The best thing is to ban people from marrying too young on the basis that they are not yet ready for it. People may say they are ready, but I don’t think that is the case,” said Marina, who is also distressed at the lack of public outrage surrounding the latest publicised case of child marriage.
“Back in our grandparents’ era, people did get married young, but child marriages are things that you normally associate with backward, developing countries. But here, it seems that child/teen marriages are something worthy of celebration when in fact they should be banned.
“When I was a teen, it was ingrained in our minds that being pregnant at that age will spoil your entire life. Now people talk as if marrying is so easy and convenient. Why are we so proud of this when we should be embarrassed?”
The way forward for our children and teens is to equip them with the right kind of knowledge about biology, social skills, and other skills necessary to cope with the turbulence of teenage years.
“The teenage years are fraught with various challenges for both boys and girls. We have to teach them how to manage this transition, as it is a confusing time, even for boys. If we don’t equip our children with the right kind of education and sufficient education, then we cannot complain, and should just accept that teen pregnancy will continue unabated,” said Marina.
“How you get pregnant is also how you get sexually transmitted diseases. But how not to get pregnant is also just as important,” she said.
Marina said that the various ministries and departments still have a silo mentality when it comes to imparting knowledge about sexuality to the young. “It encompasses areas ranging from education to health to gender rights. We also need the voice of young people as their input is important.”
She added that the topic of boy-girl relationship remains an evergreen issue. “It is the most popular topic for the audience of 3R,” said Marina, who pioneered the television pro­­gramme more than 10 years ago. 3R, which stands for Respect Relax Respond, is an award-winning programme that addresses a range of issues affecting the young – like family ties, careers, romantic relationships, sexuality, and substance abuse, among many others.
“Education empowers, and if we don’t have enough information, we will make the wrong choice, but I think getting married (very young) ranks among the worst choices,” she said in response to the tendency of some quarters to prescribe marriage as the solution to a range of problems ranging from teen pregnancy to baby dumping and promiscuity.
Things might change for the better though, as by next year, all schoolchildren will be taught sex education as a standalone subject, instead of as part of other subjects. On Monday, Deputy Education Minister Datuk Dr Puad Zarkashi told reporters at the Parliament lobby that the subject would be called Reproductive Health and Social Education, or PEERS (Pendidikan Kesihatan Reproduktif dan Social).
PEERS, which will cover topics ranging from personal hygiene to self-respect and negotiation skills, like how to say no (not just to sex, but a variety of things like smoking, alcohol and drugs), will be taught for 30 minutes a week in primary schools and 40 minutes twice a month in secondary schools. For those who still wonder whether this is the real deal, Puad revealed that the subject is intentionally not called “sex education” as most Malaysians still find that term too loaded.
On the wider issue of child abuse, Unicef said that with an average of seven cases of abuse reported each day in 2008, more needs to be done to unearth what is believed to be many more hidden cases, especially instances where the child may not display any physical signs of being abused. For that, the agency recommends that people get in touch with the National Population and Family Development Board (LPPKN) through call the hotline 15999.

Regardless of location, everyone will have the chance to speak up against all forms of child abuse this month. Hosted by Unicef, the Get On Board campaign is currently running at The digital signatures collected there will be presented to the Govern­ment to petition for further action to raise awareness about the issue so that the rights of children can be safeguarded.
The theme for Human Rights Day 2010 is Speak Up, Stop Discrimination.

More information can be found at

Amnesty Urges Malaysian Government to Stop Caning

Burmese refugee Lai Pha calls Malaysia his home, but the government classifies him as an illegal immigrant, which exposes him to the risk of arrest, caning and deportation.

Three years ago, Lai Pha fled from his home in the mountainous area of northwest Burma, years after being forced into labor by the military.

But life is not easy in Malaysia either. The 35-year-old, living in a shabby room with his wife in downtown Kuala Lumpur, cannot find a job or get access to basic healthcare. He has been arrested twice by the authorities.

He was sentenced to jail each time for breaking the country's immigration laws, plus, one stroke of the cane each time.

[Lai Pha, Burmese Refugee]:
"I couldn't sit down after being caned, it was so painful. I couldn't sit down to eat, all I could do was pretend to sit, or squat on a chair. It took more than a month for the pain to ease. It was a very bad experience. I was very weak and couldn't walk after the punishment, so two police came and dragged me from the scaffold."

Judicial caning, a penalty from the British colonial era, is still in practice in some former colonial countries like Malaysia and Singapore for offences such as robbery, illegal immigration and drug possession.

At a recent news conference, human rights group Amnesty International showed footage of an offender in a Malaysian prison being tied to a wooden scaffold, lying face down before a prison official whipped the prisoner.

An Amnesty International report says prison officials can whip at speeds reaching almost 100 miles per hour.

The report also said that most prisoners lose consciousness after being caned – for some, the pain can go on for weeks or even years, both in terms of physical disabilities and psychological trauma.

Lai Pha could be counted as one of the few lucky ones. Although he has been traumatized by police officers, he now carries a refugee document issued by the United Nation Refugee Agency.

[Lai Pha, Burmese Refugee]:
"After being arrested twice, I was afraid to leave my house or walk in the streets because I might bump into police again. Now, I shiver when I hear a police car siren, no matter where I am, walking in the streets or at home."

According to Amnesty, tens of thousands of migrant workers like Lai Pha have been caned for immigration violations, after Malaysian authorities increased the number of penal offences punishable by whipping to more than 60 since 2002.

Amnesty International urged the Malaysian government to stop the practice of judicial caning that has now hit what it calls, "epidemic" proportions. It says the caning penalty is parallel to torture.

[Lance Lattig, Amnesty International]:
"Malaysian government has not ratified the convention against torture, which most governments in the world have, but under customary international law it is still bound."

Lattig said prison officers often get double salary by administering the punishment and sometimes take bribes to miss strokes intentionally.

Caning in Malaysia is carried out for criminal offences. The punishment can also be used for religious offences, where a much thinner cane is used.

Malaysia asked to stop caning practice

By Harry Oldfield

Malaysia has been urged to stop the practice of caning. 

A Human rights group has reported that using caning as a form of judicial punishment has reached epidemic proportions in Malaysia. The group has urged that the practice should be outlawed.
Using caning as a punishment in Malaysis is legal for over 60 different offences. Blows and strikes are administered to the body with a long cane. Amnesty International has reported that many of the victims of the abuse are refugees.
Amnesty International has released estimates that at least 6,000 refugees and 10,000 prisoners are subjected to the treatment every year. The government of Malaysia has argued that caning is both a legal and an effective way of deterring criminal acts and behavior.
Amnesty International has argued that the practice is an inhumane treatment. The human rights organization found that the practice promotes not only physical damage but also psychological damage to the victims and should be banned in the country.
Amnesty International further described that the practice of caning shreds the victims flesh and leaves scars that reach all the way to the muscle tissue.
The use of caning in the country was originally introduced by British colonial regulations. The practice dates all the way back to the 19th century. Amnesty International has reported that the increasing influx of migrant workers in the country has caused the practice to become more widespread as government officials use caning as a form of punishment in prisons.
Malaysia does not recognize the refugee status and many who have fled to Malaysia from their homeland suffer the caning before being deported. 

Nian Vung, a refugee caned in Malaysia after fleeing Myanmar

Nian Vung, 23, fled to Malaysia in 2008 to escape forced labour and other human rights violations by the military in Myanmar’s North West Chin state.

After secretly crossing into Malaysia by land, he went to register as a refugee at the mobile registration unit of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in the southern city of Melaka.

Outside a church hosting the mobile registration unit, the authorities were waiting. Nian Vung was arrested and taken to an immigration detention centre.

Under Malaysian law, Nian Vung was considered to be an illegal immigrant, because Malaysia has not ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention and refugees have no legal status.

Nian Vung was tried for illegally entering Malaysia. Like most refugees from Chin state, however, he had no access to a passport before fleeing his country.

He went on trial at a court set up directly inside the detention centre. In violation of basic standards for fair trials, he was not given an interpreter who could translate the proceedings into a language he understood.

They read out my sentence. I didn’t understand it. I knew that ‘satu’ means ‘one’…. I asked another inmate to interpret it. It was written on a card: 3 months, 1 stroke of the cane,” he recalled.

Nian Vung explained the reason: “They said it was because I was ‘kosong.’ The Malay word ‘kosong’ is slang for ‘undocumented’; literally, it means ‘blank’ or ‘bare’.

In September 2008, Nian Vung was taken to Johor Keluga Prison, where he was forced to strip nearly naked and stand in a queue of other prisoners. A doctor examined his chest and blood pressure, and certified him to be caned.

Caning is a brutal form of judicial corporal punishment that causes severe pain and suffering.
Specially-trained caning officers tear into victims’ bodies with a metre-long cane swung with both hands at high speed. The cane rips into the victim’s naked skin, pulps the fatty tissue below, and leaves scars that extend to muscle fibre. The pain is so severe that victims often lose consciousness.

Caning is imposed for more than 60 offenses in Malaysia. Since 2002, these offenses include immigration violations like illegal entry.

There were four or five officers [in the caning room]. Behind the glass I could see about 10 men, very big, very strong. They were looking at us, giving us a stare. Some were holding their canes,” he said.

The cane felt very hot. A very severe pain on my buttocks,” Nian Vung recalled. “Not just the physical pain, the mental pain is worse. I felt deserted, that even God had deserted me.”

Under international law, severe pain and suffering that is intentionally inflicted by an official as punishment constitutes torture. Since 2002, when Parliament made immigration violations such as illegal entry subject to caning, tens of thousands of refugees and migrant workers have been caned.

Many of the victims are refugees from Myanmar or migrant workers from countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines. Indonesian migrant workers are caned and deported en masse. In Indonesia, Amnesty International met migrant workers deported by boat from Malaysia; 63 of the men had been caned.

Nian Vung was eventually recognized by UNHCR after his release from prison. Malaysia decided not to deport him back to Myanmar.

Torture is also against international law. But Nian Vung has no guarantee that the Malaysian authorities won’t subject him to torture by caning once again. Several refugees told Amnesty International they had been caned not just once, but repeatedly.

I’m afraid I’ll be arrested again even with my UNHCR card,” said Nian Vung. “If I get arrested, I’ll get the cane again. So I live in fear.”

Source :

Human rights advocates decry Malaysia's caning punishment as torture

In Malaysia, more than 60 offenses, including illegal immigration, are punishable by a harsh caning. Though a doctor is made available to those who are bound to a cross and struck in the bare buttocks by an officer wielding a long cane like a bat, some of those who have received the cane wonder why. Rawi, an Indonesian migrant caned earlier this year, told the human rights group Amnesty International that "the doctor asked me if I had a passport. I said, 'Yes, but not with me.' The doctor then smiled. The doctor smiled at me in a mocking way. This made me feel pain in my heart.”
That physicians are helping to facilitate what Amnesty alleges is a growing trend in caning "makes them complicit in this human rights violation." "This is in violation not only of international human rights law in general, but also of internationally recognized codes of medical ethics," Amnesty said in a report released today, calling on the Malaysian government to immediately halt the canings that are carried out on thousands of criminals each year, leaving not only physical scars, but deep psychological wounds.
Compounding problems are new strict immigration rules in Malaysia that have left tens of thousands of refugees and migrant workers on the wrong side of the law.
The practice dates to the 1800s, when Malaysia was a British colony. According to Amnesty, a cane may rip open a person's skin, damaging muscle fibers. "The pain is so severe that victims often lose consciousness."
Amnesty points out that corporal punishment for prisoners is banned under international law. As such, Malaysian officials and employees could be open to prosecution for torture crimes. However, the country has not ratified the United Nations Convention Against Torture, the optional protocol, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Source :

Malaysia practicing torture through judicial caning

By Subir Ghosh.

The pain shot up to his head faster than he could think. It seemed like a powerful electric shock. Hussain, a 26-year-old, still doesn't have words for it. He got just one, and couldn't take it. Hussain is a victim of Malaysia's judicial caning.
Across the Southeast Asian country, government officials rampantly resort to this tactic for torture. The metre-long rattan canes, swishing into the flesh of prisoners up to 160 kilometres per hour, tears into the naked flesh of prisoners, turning the fatty tissues into pulp. The scars are permanent and lacerate deep, almost into the muscle fibres. The gruesome form of torture equally painstakingly shielded from public gaze. The revelation, in the form of an Amnesty International report A blow to humanity: Torture by judicial caning in Malaysia, also recounts in horrific detail the pain inflicted on prisoners. Most lose consciousness, suffer disabilities in the weeks that follow, and can never get over the trauma ― the mental scars linger on. As many as 10,000 people have to endure judicial caning in Malaysia every year. Many are foreign nationals. The cruelty of police officers not only goes unpunished, the Malaysian government even goes to the extent of training them to subject prisoners to this form of torture. What's more, they are paid a bonus for each stroke. Since the 1990s, the range of offences subject to criminal caning has widened. Today, the number of penal offences in Malaysia subject to caning is 60. Since 2002, when the country's Parliament made immigration violations such as illegal entry too subject to caning, tens of thousands of refugees and migrant workers have been caned, the report says. While some officials double their take-home with ruthless precision, there are others who take it from victims or their families for giving a stroke a miss. Doctors are around, but not so much to treat victims. They, in fact, examine prisoners and certify them to be fit for caning. If and when victims pass ot during the torture, the state-employed doctors revive the prisoners so that they can complete the rest of the punishment. Judicial caning is a legacy of the British era. It was introduced by British colonial officials, who imposed the Indian Penal Code on the Straits Settlements in 1870, after which it spread to the Malay peninsula. Both the UK and India have long abolished caning, but it is still practised in a number of former colonies including Singapore. The UN Human Rights Council, to which Malaysia was elected in 2009, says “corporal punishment … can be tantamount to torture,” but the rule of law in the country suggests otherwise. Under international law, corporal punishment is not a lawful sanction. Malaysia's judiciary not only fails to protect prisoners from this form of torture, it in fact provides state agents with authorisation to inflict it. Fahmi, a 30-year-old Indonesian migrant, was stopped at a police roadblock while riding his motorcycle near Kuala Lumpur earlier this year. When he said that he did not have his passport with him, he was taken to the police station. He had this to tellAmnesty International:
“They beat me in the police station. They told me I have no right to stay in Malaysia. Two policemen beat both my feet with a truncheon, and broke my ankle bone. I spent three days in the hospital…. They called me a foreign bastard [and said] ‘How dare I drive a motorbike in Malaysia!’ I had a license. They tried to make me confess that my bike’s indicators weren’t working properly.… They took 2,000 ringgit (US$600) and my mobile phone.”
Sulaiman, a 28-year-old Indonesian migrant given three strokes and then deported in April 2010, said, “When you’re tied up you don’t feel the pain as much until after they untie you. That’s when the wound starts to bleed.” Hau Neel, a 47-year-old Burmese refugee caned in 2007, says, “The most painful thing is in my heart, that hurts even more than the wound now.” Amnesty International has called for immediately ending the barbaric practice. The report is available for download (PDF).

Read more:

Rights Group Says Caning in Malaysia Is Torture

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Amnesty International is calling on Malaysia to halt the practice of judicial caning, a punishment the rights group says amounts to torture and violates international law.
In a report to be released on Monday, Amnesty says that the number of offenses subject to caning under Malaysian criminal law has increased to more than 60 in recent years.
“Caning in Malaysia has hit epidemic proportions,” Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific director, said in a statement.
Based on interviews with 57 people, including drug users, Burmese refugees and Indonesian migrant workers, the report found that some inmates had been left with permanent scars and physical disabilities after being hit with the meter-long cane used in Malaysian prisons.
“The pain inflicted by caning is so severe that victims often lose consciousness,” states the report.
In what it calls a “rough estimate,” Amnesty claims that as many as 10,000 people are caned each year in Malaysia, many of them foreigners who violate immigration laws. That estimate is based on “statistical sampling” compiled by Amnesty through interviews with prisoners, the report states.
The group did not investigate caning carried out under Shariah, or Islamic law, which only covers Muslims, who make up 60 percent of Malaysia’s population.
In neighboring Singapore, where about 30 offenses are punishable by caning, 6,404 men were sentenced to be caned in 2007, according to the U.S. State Department.
The Amnesty report found that the number of people caned under Malaysian criminal law has increased since 2002, when the government made more immigration offenses, like illegal entry, punishable by caning.
A refugee from Myanmar, who was sentenced to three months in prison and two strokes of the cane after being found guilty of entering Malaysia illegally, said he was left bleeding and could not sit down for three weeks after he was caned on the buttocks last year.
In an interview in Kuala Lumpur, the man, who did not want to be identified because of fears for his family’s safety in Myanmar, described how he was taken from a detention center to a nearby prison. He waited in a hall with about 70 other men until his name was called.
“We could hear them screaming. When they came out they were very weak,” he said of the prisoners caned before him. “When my name was called, I was very afraid.”
The man, aged 28, said he had to strip off his clothes, and his hands were tied to a bar. He believed he blacked out for a couple of minutes after the second stroke. “I cannot describe how painful it was,” he said.
The man has since been granted refugee status by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
He is awaiting resettlement in another country, and said he had been shocked to discover that Malaysia practiced caning.
“I feel that Malaysia is a democratic country and they have better human rights compared to Burma. In this kind of country, they should not have this kind of punishment,” he said.
A statement issued by the prime minister’s office said that the government could not comment on the accuracy of the report because it had not had adequate time to review its findings.
“Caning sentences are carried out in Malaysia, as they are in other countries, in connection with serious offenses, including violent crimes, rape and drug trafficking,” the statement said. “These judicial canings are sentenced, alongside prison terms, at the discretion of the presiding judge.”
Malaysia restricts caning to men aged 18 to 50, although men older than 50 may be caned for sexual offenses. Women are only subject to caning under Shariah.
“We regularly review our criminal justice system practices to ensure that punishments are effective and fit the crime,” the statement said.
The Amnesty report states that prison officers were paid bonuses to carry out caning and that some officers took bribes to intentionally “miss strokes.”
Amnesty argues that doctors involved in the process — who certify prisoners as being eligible for caning and resuscitate them if they lose consciousness — are violating medical ethics.
In calling on the government to abolish the practice, the report states that “caning violates the absolute prohibition against torture and ill-treatment under international law.” 

Source :

Kennewick Family Learning Centerr reaches out to refugees

The small unit at Central Park Apartments in Kennewick has no couch, no bed, no easy chairs or TV.
And for good reason.
Four computers sit on a long table in what otherwise would be the only bedroom. And a makeshift classroom, including alphabet and color charts, occupies the front room at the Family Learning Center in unit B-1.
This is where refugees from Burma and other countries in Southeast Asia and Africa who live at Central Park meet each week with volunteer teachers to practice English. They also get help developing computer skills and homework tutoring for their children.
"This is a very special place for us," said Seng Mun, 18, who immigrated with her parents to Kennewick in late July. "Everybody loves this place," said Mun, who is attending Kennewick High School.
Despite a recent snowy day that canceled public school classes, the center was crowded with children and adults eager to learn.
Members of the Family of Faith Church in Kennewick started the center about a year ago to help refugees who have come to the Tri-Cities with assistance of World Relief. Though Burma was renamed Myanmar in 1989 after a military takeover, the immigrants prefer to be called Burmese.
Theresa Roosendaal, one of the founders of the center, said it began as a desire by some church members to befriend Burmese immigrants by helping them understand English, teaching them how to cook in an American kitchen and helping their children with education.
Seeing the need was one thing, but meeting it was another.
Coming to America was more than a cultural shock. For some, said Roosendaal, it was "like walking from the jungle into the 21st century."
Church volunteers initially tried to help by going to the Burmese families individually, but that didn't work as well as hoped. There had to be another way.
It came as a one-time $7,500 grant to the church, with no strings attached.
The money has paid for renting the apartment to serve as the Family Learning Center, and to purchase the computers that help the immigrants improve their English and learn typing and some internet savvy.
The center has become a vital part of the refugees' lives by offering free training in English for about 60 men, women and children from the Burmese community at Central Park. It also has been available to refugees from other countries who are learning English, including people from Somalia and Iraq.
Learning together
This week at the center, seven Burmese children who attend Westgate Elementary School in Kennewick, were doing their homework with the help of Roosendaal's 17-year-old daughter, Katy.
Each child had to answer math questions, write answers to incomplete sentences and fix misspelled words.
"What is wrong with that word (firend)?" Katy asked Htoo Moo Say, who studied the sentence for a few seconds before penciling in the answer, "friend."
At the other end of the table, Siwakorn Khamphile, who is from Thailand, received one-on-one help from Katy's mother, Theresa, in understanding how to use punctuation and quotation marks. It was Khamphile's first day at the center.
"(Children) learn the language real quick," said Roosendaal, noting that, unlike their parents, they aren't afraid to use new words even though they might make mistakes.
A week earlier, volunteer Kristy Wolters used a picture book to teach a dozen children about Thanksgiving. The children, bundled in coats, sat around a long table as Wolters opened the book.
"What is a feast?" Wolters asked, pointing to a story in the book about the first Thanksgiving in America.
"Food," said one boy. "Lots of food."
"Yes. And turkey," Wolters added. "Turkey is like a chicken, only bigger," she explained.
The children's eyes showed they understood.
Wolters passed the book around for each child to see, then asked each to read from it if they could. Some did, some didn't.
Another child figured it out: "Thanksgiving is every November."
Wolters was pleased, and the children were smiling.
"What does a turkey say?" Wolters asked, then answered: "Gobble, gobble! That's how we say it in English."
The children started laughing.
In the room next door, Mun was helping Roosendaal coach older Burmese to learn computer skills.
Mun said she had never heard about the internet until 2007. "I saw the word and said, 'What is internet?' " she recalled.
With no internet service available in her village in Burma, Mun said she would ride a motorbike into China to visit an internet cafe. But she found it too expensive to do often.
Motivated to learn
"People who come here want a better life," said Mun, who did a lot of self study in English while waiting to emigrate in Malaysia. She's eager to continue her education and obtain a college degree in drafting.
"She is very motivated," Roosendaal said, adding that most Burmese are eager learners, especially if they see how it can lead to a better job.
"They are a very communal people. It's heartwarming to see how they care for each other," she said.
One of the computer students, Win Kho, smiled tentatively, unsure if her English was good enough, then politely explained why she comes to the center weekly.
"I want to teach my children and right now I can't," said Kho, who is 27 and came to Kennewick two years ago. She said she wants to learn English so she can raise her two small sons to be literate in "the one language all Americans speak."
Like many Burmese parents, Kho wants to know enough to help her children when they begin attending public school. That's why the homework assistance that is offered Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays brings parents in to learn alongside their children, Roosendaal said.
Roosendaal said the center has survived more than a year on volunteers and that initial $7,500 grant, but something more must happen to keep it going.
The Family of Faith Church and the Ukrainian Pentecostal Church, which meet at the same location in Kennewick, are providing some -- but not all -- support in the coming year.
"We still have a gap," Roosendaal said.
People who want to help or donate can call Pastor Dan Wolters at Family of Faith Church, 783-6261.

Read more:

Caning epidemic in Malaysia prisons

Caning of convicts and asylum seekers in Malaysian prisons has reached "epidemic proportions" and is often inflicted so severely that flesh is torn off the body, Amnesty International said on Monday.
The London-based human rights group said the practice amounts to torture and should be abandoned. However, prison officials defended the whippings as lawful.
Malaysian courts mete out caning - a remnant from British colonial laws - to punish severe offences such as rape, robbery, drug possession and corruption. Up to 24 strokes are given with a thick rattan stick.
Since 2002, caning has also been used to punish immigration offences, such as illegally entering the country. Amnesty estimated that some 10,000 people are caned each year, many of them illegal immigrants.
Amnesty interviewed dozens of convicts earlier this year for its 50-page report "A Blow to Humanity - Torture by Judicial Caning in Malaysia".
Prisoners told Amnesty they were lined up and watched or heard one another's caning.
The cane "shreds the victim's naked skin, turns the fatty tissue into pulp, and leaves permanent scars that extend all the way to muscle fibres. Blood and flesh splash off the victim's body, often accompanied by urine and faeces," the report said.
Supri Hashim, an official with Malaysia's Prison Department, rejected the accusation of torture, saying the whippings are carefully supervised by prison authorities and attended by doctors.
"The role of the Prison Department is to enforce and execute any sentence passed by the court ... based on Malaysian law," he told The Associated Press.
Malaysia says caning is a deterrent. Neighbouring Singapore also canes criminals and vandals regularly, citing the same reason.
Amnesty said the practice could cause long-term disabilities and trauma.
"Caning in Malaysia has hit epidemic proportions," Amnesty's Asia-Pacific director Sam Zarifi said in a statement. "In every case that we examined, the punishment amounted to torture, which is absolutely prohibited under any circumstances."
It said many of the foreigners sentenced to caning did not get legal representation or understand the charge. Those who are caned are tied to a scaffold while wearing only a loincloth. Specially trained officers are paid a bonus for each stroke, the report said.
"They don't tell you what day you'll be whipped. You just know your number is coming closer," the report quotes a Malaysian caned for heroin possession.
"I felt like an animal (when tied to the scaffold). I was shaking with fear," the report quotes a refugee from Burma. Many asylum-seekers are caned for having illegally entered Malaysia.
Such caning is administered under criminal laws that are separate from Malaysia's Islamic laws, which also prescribe whipping for religious offences. But Islamic caning is largely symbolic and administered with a thin stick.
In 2008, a Muslim woman was sentenced to caning by an Islamic court for drinking alcohol in public. The punishment was later commuted.

Source :

Driven to help the less fortunate

THAJUDDIN Mustaffar (pic), 55, who has been a driver with the UNHCR since 1978, will be honoured for being the longest serving staff member of the UN agency in Asia.
He will be receiving the award at the agency’s 60th anniversary celebrations in Geneva on Dec 14.
The ceremony will celebrate the contributions of UNHCR staff in protecting and assisting refugees.
Thajuddin started out by driving UNHCR staff to the various camps and meetings. He was also often involved in the distribution of aid to refugees in various places.
In 1993, Thajuddin became senior driver and was given the responsibility of driving the UNHCR Representative.
The father of five children said he was surprised and honoured to receive the award.
He also said that working for the UNHCR has made him grateful for his life.
“I teach my children to always be prepared because bad things can happen. Anyone can be a refugee, you never know. So I teach my children to take care of themselves if something happens to me. I tell my children – look at the world, at what is happening. We are lucky.”

Source :  The Star
Publish Post

A population in limbo

Until things improve, something needs to be done to help refugees awaiting resettlement to third countries or until they can return to their home countries.
WHO could have predicted that the fall of Saigon would impact Malaysia?
The capture of the South Vietnamese capital (now known as Ho Chi Minh City) by the North Vietnamese Army 35 years ago marked the end of the Vietnam War and the transition of a period leading to the formal re-unification of Vietnam under communist rule.
Making do: Vietnamese boat people at the Pulau Bidong refugee camp. Access to clean water is one of the basic needs of refugees. Malaysia’s first brush with refugees was with the South Vietnamese who came to be known as the boat people.
It led to a mass exodus of South Viet­namese who feared persecution because of their sympathies for the old government.
Many escaped by boat and ended up on our east coast, brought naturally by the tides. That was Malaysia’s first brush with refugees, who came to be known as the “Vietnamese boat people”.
“Refugees are people who are forced to leave their countries to avoid persecution,” says Alan Vernon, representative of the United Nations High Com­missioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
“The fear has to be justified. You can be afraid but the fear might not be justified.”
"The absence of a legal framework makes it more difficult for refugees" ALAN VERNON, UNHCR REPRESENTATIVE
He stresses on this fact because many people do not differentiate between migrants and refugees.
Under international law, a refugee is defined as a person who, owing to a well-founded fear of being prosecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a social group or political opinion, is in a foreign land and unable to avail himself of the protection of that country.
In contrast, migrants come to Malaysia because of economic opportunities.
There are over two million foreign workers in the country now, not including illegal workers. Most hail from Indo­nesia, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Nepal, India and Vietnam.
“A migrant can choose to return; they might go back to poverty but it is not the same as facing persecution or the possibility of being killed,” says Vernon.
The UNHCR began its operations in Malaysia in 1975 with the arrival of the Vietnamese boat people and this remained its main priority until 1996, when the Comprehensive Plan of Action on Indochinese refugees was officially brought to a close.
For over two decades, the UNHCR assisted Malaysia in hosting close to 250,000 boat people before durable solutions were found for them. Over 240,000 Vietnamese refugees eventually resettled in countries like the United States, Canada, Australia, France and New Zealand while some 9,000 returned to Vietnam.
As Malaysia is not a signatory to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees or the 1967 Protocol that followed, the UNHCR is the main body protecting and assisting asylum-seekers and refugees here.
Malaysia also hosted thousands of Filipino Muslims from Mindanao during the 1970s and 1980s as well as Muslim Chams from Cambodia and Bosnians in the 1990s.
In recent years, thousands of people from Aceh, Indonesia, also sought refuge here.
These days, however, the main refugees are Myanmar nationals, mostly victims of their military junta.
As of October this year, 91,100 refugees and asylum-seekers have registered with the UNHCR. Almost 84,000 are from Myanmar, comprising the Chins, Rohingyas, Myanmar Muslims, Mon, Kachins and others.
Other refugees are from Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia. Another 10,000 people of concern to the UNHCR remain unregistered.
While in Malaysia, these refugees await resettlement to third countries or remain until the situation in their home countries improves.
Globally, there are 15 million refugees but the total number of people resettled each year is fewer than 100,000. About 7,400 refugees in Malaysia were resettled last year.
Vernon says if the situation changes in their homeland, these people will ultimately return.
“When the situation improved in Aceh (after the signing of the peace agreement following the 2004 tsunami), the Achenese returned. Home is still the best (place to go). Everyone feels the same way. Even those Viet­namese who were resettled in Western countries are interested in going back,” he adds.
But until things improve, something needs to be done.
“What we don’t want is a population in limbo. That’s the nature of refugees – they are waiting for what happens next,” he explains.
Unlike decades ago, refugees today are moving around freely with the local community. They are spread throughout the country although most are concentrated in the Klang Valley.
In the past, the common solution for the Vietnamese boat people was to house them in refugee camps.
“But camp settings are negative as people are denied freedom of movement and conditions are squalid, with sanitation and hygiene problems. The camp becomes a way of warehousing people,” says Vernon.
At the height of the refugees’ exodus from Vietnam, more than 60,000 people were living in a cramped area of not more than one sq km in Pulau Bidong (an island off Tereng­ganu).
Maintenance of refugee camps, he adds, is costly and the running of a camp can amount to more than US$50mil a year.
Vernon believes the current urban setting allows the refugees to live freely and in better conditions although there are still issues that need to be addressed.
The absence of refugee legislation, he points out, makes it difficult for these people to earn a living. Refugees can only take on odd jobs and because there are no contracts involved, the tendency of them being exploited is very high.
Children are denied formal education, while health care is an expensive affair for refugees. Then, there are also the issues of arrests and detention.
“The absence of a legal framework makes it more difficult for refugees,” says Vernon. The UNHCR is urging host governments to put in place refugee laws and sign the refugee convention.
So far, 147 countries have signed the convention, with only Timor Leste, the Philip­pines and Cambodia being parties to the convention in Asean.
Vernon believes that many governments are reluctant to set conditions in place, believing this might attract more people to the country.
“Refugees are a global problem and governments have to work together on the issue and share out the burden.”
Vernon feels that Malaysia has done well so far, with help from civil society and non-governmental organisations.
From his personal experience, Malaysians want to help out once they understand the plight of the refugees.
“It could happen to anybody if things go out of control in a country,” he reminds.

Source : The Star

Moved by plight of refugees

IN her line of work, Zakiah Aris (pic) comes across many depressing stories. But none is more disconcerting to her than the accounts of people who lost everything in the blink of an eye.
A senior resettlement assistant with the UNHCR, Zakiah deals with refugees.
“I feel a lot more for people who had it all (and lost). It’s not easy to adapt if you have lost everything. Some people move on, but at the end of the day, they are brave to go through the challenges,” she relates.
Zakiah still remembers vividly an elderly Vietnamese professor among the refugees at the Vietnamese refugee camp in Pulau Bidong, Terengganu. The professor who spoke fluent French held a high position in Vietnam but was forced to flee for fear of persecution.
“Just imagine if your parents had to go through the same traumatic experience,” she says.
Zakiah, 48, has been working with UNHCR for 22 years, starting at the camp in Pulau Bidong, in 1988. When the Pulau Bidong camp was closed in 1991, she worked at the Sungai Besi refugee camp.
Zakiah remembers an incident where staff of the UNHCR had to be evacuated from the island because the refugees were protesting the visit of a Vietnamese official to Malaysia. They were burning effigies and blocking access to the jetty.
She remembers Pulau Bidong as a beautiful and hilly island and that the refugee camp had a kampung-like setting.
In those days, refugees would arrive at the island day and night and the Malaysian Red Crescent Society (MRCS) had to continuously build makeshift camps while waiting for materials to arrive from the mainland.
The refugees, she recalls, lived in cramped longhouses with sewage pipes hanging above. Rats were common and sanitation was always an issue.
Those interested in volunteering for UNHCR can contact 03-2141 1322 or e-mail info