By Joseph Allchin
The Malaysian government has said that it plans to “swap” detained migrants with Burma, causing concern among rights activists about the safety of those returning to Burma.
Malaysian Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein was quoted in the local press as saying the scheme will “help reduce the numbers [of migrants] in our detention centres.” Kuala Lumpur-based rights activist Pranom Somwong has said that serious problems over “transparency” with such dealings for both countries make the scheme “unacceptable”.
She raised questions about the safety of detainees, many of whom she believes would or should be classified as asylum seekers due to the deplorable record of the Burmese regime, and that many Burmese had fled for political as well as economic reasons.
Malaysia is a popular destination for Burmese seeking work and safety, with large numbers of ethnic Chin and Rohingya attempting to gain asylum in the country.
The Rohingya minority group from western Burmaare systematically discriminated against, with the majority refused even citizenship papers. Burma’s immigration minister, Khin Yi, told parliament recently that the Rohingya in the Maungdaw township of Arakan state are “assumed to be Bengalis … [who] have shared common religion, culture, appearance and language with their counterparts [in Bangladesh].”
Malaysian rights group Suaram meanwhile described the Burmese government as “tyrannical” and “undemocratic,” and condemned the scheme.
Malaysia is home to approximately 400,000 Burmese with around 87,000 recognised by the UN refugee agency, although Malaysia’s ongoing refusal to sign the 1951 treaty on refugees means many of these are still harassed by authorities. Human Rights Watch said last month that a pledge by Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak to do away with repressive emergency acts that include detention without trial must be followed through.
Pranom claims that few of the details of the deal are known. This is a problem that often plagues refugees and asylum seekers, with a lack of clarity on such schemes leaving migrants in a legal limbo.
Malaysia’s Bernama newspaper quoted Hishammuddin as calling for “cooperation” to make the “repatriation process run smoothly”. He also reportedly called for a joint working committee between the two governments. The Burmese labour ministry has recently sought to regularise management of the large numbers of Burmese who migrate for work.
Malaysia is dependent on migrant labour for its manufacturing sector but has faced criticism over its handling of migrants. In 2009 the US State Department downgraded the country to a Tier Three nation because of allegations that officials had taken bribes and sold detained migrants.
Little information as to who the Burmese would send back to Malaysia as part of the “swap deal” was made available. Few Malaysians are believed to be detained in Burma.