Falling On Deaf Ears
On Thursday, the Malaysian deputy prime minister, Najib Razak, said that asylum seekers and refugees would not be spared in the current crackdown on undocumented migrant workers. The government will not recognise the protection letters issued to them by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. More than anything else to date this disregard for even the most basic of human rights demonstrates, once again, the utter callousness of the country's relations with its migrant workers and other vulnerable people from neighbouring countries. There's barely a murmur of concern among the Malaysian middle classes. The mainstream media are compliant with the government strategy. In fact, there are even press claims that UNHCR had issued protection letters "indiscriminately" ahead of the crackdown, a charge that UNHCR vehemently denies in the strongest terms.
There are, thankfully, signs of concerted pressure on the government. But a lot of it is from outside and the government is a past master at deflecting that kind of criticism. Most of this points to the various ways that Malaysia is breaking international agreements to which it is a signatory. The Hong Kong-based Asia Pacific Mission for Migrants, for instance, highlights in a letter to the prime minister that Malaysia is ignoring the 1999 Bangkok Declaration on Undocumented/Irregular Migrants which states:
Irregular migrants should be granted humanitarian treatment, including appropriate health and other services, while the cases of irregular migration are being handled, according to law. Any unfair treatment towards them should be avoided.Amnesty Malaysia has issued a (quite mild) rebuke to Najib. It points out that Malaysia is in contravention of Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which notes that
Asylum seekers and refugees should not be detained unless they have been charged with a recognizable criminal offence or for reasons recognized as being legitimate under international standards.Malaysia is also violating Article 33 of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees which aims to prevent refugees from being
forced to return to their country of origin where they risk facing torture or other serious human rights violations.Amnesty's simple plea is that the Malaysian government halts the arrests and detention of asylum seekers and refugees and to release those already detained. And the UNHCR's Ron Redmond reports that there are already a number of bone fide refugees from Aceh and Burma who have been arrested.
Meanwhile, the crackdown has created a constant, ugly atmosphere of fear. Hundreds of asylum seekers from Burma and Aceh have been living in harsh conditions in the jungle on the outskirts of Malaysia's ostentatious administrative centre, Putra Jaya. Meanwhile, thousands of migrant workers in Sabah have fled across the border to the Indonesian island of Nunukan, hoping for permission to return to Malaysia. They're surviving in appalling conditions.
But comfortable, complacent, xenophobic Malaysians just don't give a damn. There's not yet anything like a critical mass of outrage about this scandal. But the pressure, the lobbying, the letter-writing must go on. We just hope it doesn't fall on deaf ears.