Australia has finally signed its morally bankrupt refugee deal with a corrupt and unpopular Malaysian government — with no guarantees the rights of those shipped here will be protected.
There is no rule of law in this south east Asian country and the torture and abuse of refugees and illegal immigrants, mainly ethnic minorities from Burma, is systemic. Police and immigration authorities operate with impunity.
Recently, two Singaporean women who crossed the border for a dinner were forced to do naked squats — a popular and widely condemned punishment here — because immigration authorities forgot to stamp their passports when they entered the country.
"Asylum seekers in Malaysia have never had any guarantee of safety in this country as Malaysian immigration laws do not recognise those granted official UNHCR refugee status," human rights group Aliran wrote in a recent report.
The Gillard Government contends it has some oversight of the treatment of the asylum seekers it will deport to Malaysia. But it has failed to explain how it can enforce that oversight in a country with a compliant judiciary where a draconian Internal Security Act is routinely used as a tool of government policy.
"What Malaysia has to offer asylum seekers has always been less than a safe place," says Aliran. The report continues:
"Asylum seekers and refugees constantly remain at risk of arrest, detention and human rights violations in a this country, which some see as a shade better than where they came from. The non-recognition of asylum seekers and refugees in immigration legislation and regulations and criminalisation of those undocumented are two very sharp prongs of a fork keeping asylum seekers and refugees at bay, so it seems.
"But asylum seekers and other undocumented and irregular migrants still appear undeterred by these risks — despite the added dangers of falling into the hands of local security enforcers … detention in overcrowded immigration detention camps, whipping, and other physical and mental abuse."
Here in Malaysia, corrupt police make regular rounds of factories and other businesses to collect bribes from employers using immigrant labor.
As has been widely reported, Malaysia is not a signatory to UN conventions and protocols on the treatment of refugees. It has also insisted on excluding any reference to human rights in the deal with Australia, according to Aliran.
"I’m never safe. My family is never safe," an ethnic Rohingya refugee woman tells New Matilda. She is from Burma and works in a factory in the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur. "It’s better than my country, but we have no security here. The police can do anything."
The deal between Canberra and Kuala Lumpur will see 800 asylum seeks who arrive in Australia by boat sent to Malaysia in return for receiving 4000 UN-approved refugees over the next four years.
But the UNHCR itself is not fully on board. "The critical test of this arrangement will now be in its implementation both in Australia and Malaysia, particularly the protection and vulnerability assessment procedures under which asylum seekers will be assessed in Australia prior to any transfer taking place," the UNHCR said in a statement issued on Monday.
There are about 100,000 officially recognised refugees here. But rights groups say there could be as many as one million. Under the deal, asylum seekers sent from Australia will have the right to work, education and medical care — rights denied other refugees in Malaysia.
Immigration Minister Chris Bowen, in Malaysia to sign the deal, already says it may just be the start.
"My Malaysian counterpart, Mr Hishammuddin, has made it clear he regards this as a pilot project, and if it works and is successful, then they will examine potential extensions," Bowen told ABC television. "And that is completely consistent with my point of view."
As Home Minister, Hishammuddin is responsible for police and immigration authorities. His department’s Publications Control and Quranic Text Division recently inked out sentences in an article by The Economist on a peaceful protest calling for electoral reform.
Canberra says the policy is aimed at cutting off people smuggling, a dangerous trade that has seen hundreds die over the years as they try to reach Australia in rickety, unseaworthy boats.
But, says Aliran:
"There are no concrete legally binding or lasting guarantees that asylum seekers and refugees will be afforded protection against human rights violations and deportation to countries where they will be at risk.
"The Malaysian government’s latest policy proposal to legalise undocumented and irregular migrants in Malaysia falls short of a definite commitment to uphold human and refugee rights."
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