Refugees at risk as Malaysia prepares crackdown on illegal migrants
Refugees at risk as Malaysia prepares crackdown on illegal migrants.
Refugees from Indonesia’s Aceh province receiving their UNHCR identity card from a mobile clinic on Malaysia’s Penang island.

GENEVA, 3 Dec 2004 - Thousands of refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia could be at risk of arrest, detention or deportation in the face of an impending crackdown on illegal migrants that involves bounties and a sizeable volunteer corps working with law enforcement agencies, warned the UN refugee agency on Friday.

"While we understand the Malaysian government's intention to tackle the issue of illegal migrants, the operation could have an adverse effect on people of concern to us," said UNHCR spokeswoman Jennifer Pagonis at a news briefing in Geneva on Friday.

There are some 28,000 people of concern to UNHCR in Malaysia, including ethnic groups from Myanmar, people fleeing the strife-torn Indonesian province of Aceh, and other nationalities. Hundreds of them live in makeshift jungle camps near the new administrative capital of Putra Jaya, often living alongside illegal migrants, which makes them especially vulnerable during any crackdown.

UNHCR is sending mobile teams to the jungle camps to register asylum seekers and provide them with documentation ahead of the anticipated clampdown, for which no date has yet been set. The agency recently completed a mobile registration exercise for more than 600 refugees from Aceh in western Malaysia's Penang island, but has said that it will not have enough time to register all groups needing international protection within such a short time.

And while, in a welcome move, the government recently declared it would grant temporary stay permits to 10,000 Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, UNHCR fears that the necessary government documentation will not be ready before the start of the crackdown.

The agency has welcomed assurances by the highest levels of the Malaysian government that people of concern to UNHCR will not be affected by the impending operation.

"However, we have misgivings about the implementation of the operation, which it seems will involve 500,000 volunteers who may not have been fully informed about the protection of refugees, and also because there have been announcements that bounties will be given to officials depending on the numbers of illegals being caught," said Pagonis.

She stressed, "It is vital that all law enforcement agencies, including the volunteers, be issued with instructions to ensure respect for documentation issued by UNHCR and that refugees and others of concern to UNHCR are not arrested, detained or deported during this planned operation, given their special circumstances."

Story date: 3 December 2004
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