A detained refugee’s plea for help in Malaysia.
KUALA LUMPUR, 26 Nov 2004 - Languishing in Malaysia's immigration detention centres awaiting resettlement in a third country are 342 refugees, among them the elderly, women and children and particularly vulnerable cases - including torture victims.
In an effort to alleviate the refugees' despair and distress at their circumstances, UNHCR is urging the Malaysian government to make a humanitarian gesture and release 37 particularly vulnerable cases being held on immigration infractions, while they await resettlement. Included in this group are 17 Rohingyas - a Muslim ethnic minority from Myanmar to whom the Malaysian government recently said it would give temporary stay permits.
"We have, on a constant basis, requested the Malaysian authorities to release them soon, as we are in the midst of the resettlement process and convincing third countries to take them in," said UNHCR's Representative in Malaysia, Volker Türk.
More than half the 342 refugees in detention in Malaysia are from Indonesia's strife-torn province of Aceh, with the Chins - an ethnic minority from Myanmar - making up another large group, along with the 17 Rohingyas and refugees of 57 other nationalities.
Fleeing persecution in their own countries, often without documentation, the refugees feel desperate to find themselves detained in a country where they hoped to find a temporary safe haven.
"Basically, we left Aceh to save ourselves from the military and all the problems. We are hoping for the international community to help us. We want the international community to help us get out of this camp," a refugee who was arrested for lack of documentation, told UNHCR.
"I can't take it anymore," said a young woman from Myanmar in tears. "We left our country under a lot of difficulty. If we are sent back home, our lives will be in danger. So based on these reasons we stay here, even though it's so difficult."
Many of the detainees are in a state of despair. Every visit by a UNHCR official is awaited with hope of news of resettlement.
"Waiting is the most difficult. Everyone comes to visit. Then, people who come after us are resettled. There are some old people - 65 to 70 years old - they are crying inside. They've been waiting for two years and nobody does anything for us."
Conversations with the refugees are punctuated by sighs of contained frustration. They feel forgotten.
"We are suffering from Burma to here. We are suffering but no one recognises us…. I'm not recognised as a human being. I want to go somewhere, where I am recognised," said one young man.
UNHCR is making determined efforts to get the refugees out of detention and resettled, but that requires the goodwill of the government and the resettlement countries.
The constant anxiety of the refugees about their future is detrimental to their health and well being.
"We've been expecting every day to get released and discuss about our future. Sometimes, it's difficult to hope for the future. Sometimes we feel our future is not certain. We cannot return to our home country and we do not know the future," said a detained refugee from Myanmar.
There are some 28,000 asylum seekers and refugees in Malaysia. Most of them are considered illegal immigrants, which is why they can be detained on immigration charges.
UNHCR asks states to explore different alternatives to detention of asylum seekers and refugees, and to abstain in principle from detaining children.
By Jennifer Pagonis, Kuala Lumpur
26 Nov 2004