FRIDAY, 02 MARCH 2012
While a controversial government amnesty program for illegal migrants in Malaysia is expected to run out next month, a similar scheme may soon affect tens of thousands of Burmese refugees in the nation.
The so-called “6P” scheme was introduced by the Malaysian authorities last summer to biometrically register and legalize illegal foreign workers, but most Burmese refugees were not eligible for the amnesty program.
Holders of refugee identity cards issued by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Kuala Lumpur were excluded. By the end of January, 91 percent of the 97,000 refugees registered with UNHCR in Malaysia were Burmese.
They include 34,400 Chins, 23,000 Rohingyas, 10,500 Burmese Muslims, 4,600 Rakhine, 3,800 Mon, 3,300 Kachins and other ethnicities, UNHCR external relations officer Yante Ismail told The Irrawaddy.
Yet tens of thousands are still waiting to be granted asylum status, wrote Irene Fernandez, executive director of the non-governmental organization Tenaganita, in an open letter on the issue earlier this week.
And those who have been granted are at the mercy of enforcement officers who “arbitrarily acknowledge or reject UNHCR-issued documents,” she added.
In November last year, the UNHCR said it had agreed with the Malaysian authorities to set up a mechanism similar to the P6 program for UNHCR-registered refugees.
“The inclusion of their biodata within a government database will lead to greater protection for refugees, particularly against arrest and detention as their identities can be easily verified by law enforcement officials,” said UNHCR representative Alan Vernon at the time.
“This will also help prevent prosecution of persons holding UNHCR documents for immigration offenses or deportation,” he added.
The UNHCR refugee registration program was scheduled to begin in January 2012. However, it has not started yet due to technical problems, according to a person familiar with program who asked to remain anonymous.
But acceptance into a 6P-based scheme does not guarantee an easy ride for Burmese migrants working in Malaysia, with many current 6P participants finding themselves worse off than before.
Illegal foreign workers who register in the scheme escape criminal punishment, but will eventually have to return to their country of origin. Their employers are also granted equal amnesty.
“When their visas expire, they will be sent home. So both the worker and employer should know (…) that the government is not opening up for good,” Human Resources Minister S. Subramaniam told news website Free Malaysia Today.
Illegal migrants who have a police record, have left the specific employer who arranged their residence in Malaysia or do not pass a mandatory health check, are also excluded from the P6 program, according to regulations published by the Malaysian Ministry of Home Affairs.
Only 120,000 illegal foreign workers registered with 6P by the end of December so authorities decided to extend the program, Malaysian state news agency Bernama reported.
By the end of February, 379,000 people registered, with almost 95,000 of them returned to their country of origin, according to a press statement by the Ministry of Home Affairs.
Official estimates put the number of illegal foreign migrants working in Malaysia between 1.3 and 2 million.
But according to Fernandez, “2.6 million migrants came forward to register under 6P, half of whom were undocumented migrants.”
“More than 70 percent remain undocumented,” she wrote in her recent open letter blaming poor handling of the process by authorities. “The implementation of the program has thus far been chaotic and lacking in transparency and accountability,” she added.
Although it is uncertain what extra protection registering with the Malaysian authorities would afford Burmese migrant workers, there is little disputing that their current situation remains precarious.
Some Burmese refugees registered with the UNHCR have been arrested and detained in the last few weeks, according to a reader’s letter sent to the Malaysian online news service Malaysiakini.
The letter tells of a raid on Feb. 25 at a bus station in Selangor and another similar raid on Dec. 5 last year.
“Asylum seekers received the inhumane and unacceptable punishment of caning while in Kajang Jail because they could not provide identification,” a reader calling herself Iang Hlei Par wrote regarding the latter case.
“We must not turn a blind eye to such abuse that is a result of disorganized and negligent government,” she added.
According to Fernandez, up to two hundred migrants including refugees were arrested in a raid in Kuala Lumpur on Feb. 11.
“Eyewitnesses state that immigration officers placed ‘yellow tags’ on the migrants and refugees, before carting them away into four immigration trucks.”
While these incidents could not be verified, episodes of violent treatment of Burmese migrants by Malaysian authorities have been previously documented. A 2010 report by the international human rights watchdog Amnesty International detailed cases of canning aggravated by acid placed on the victims’ wounds.
Meanwhile, high fees for the registration process have deterred many illegal foreign workers from taking part in the existing 6P scheme. Work placement agents reportedly demand high fees for registration, and employers often put the financial burden onto their workers.
Migrants have to pay a fee for biometric registration and an additional fee for a work permit. The fees for a work permit range from 360 ringgit (US $120) for agricultural workers to 1,800 ringgit ($600) for restaurant workers and cleaners, according to the Ministry of Home Affairs website.
Malaysia has not yet signed the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, dating back to 1959. It protects refugees from forcible return to their country of origin.
Last week, Malaysian immigration authorities denied 23-year-old Saudi Arabian blogger Hamza Kashgari’s request for asylum. He was repatriated to Saudi Arabia, where he faces the death penalty if convicted on blasphemy charges. Last year, Malaysia deported eleven Uighur refugees to an unknown fate in China.