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Welcome to Malaysia - The lives of refugee in Malaysia

SBY Dateline - May 22, 2011

When Julia Gillard announced recently she wanted to send 800 asylum seekers to Malaysia, it was always going to be controversial. Back in 2009 we sent Dateline's Amos Roberts to Malaysia to examine how they were dealing with the asylum seeker issue. Amos became the first foreign journalist allowed to film in a Malaysian detention centre. He also found many people living in fear in the community. Here is an edited version of his story.

Reporter: Amos Roberts

My trip to Malaysia in 2009 put Australia's anxiety about a trickle of boat people into perspective. Back then, there were already 49,000 registered refugees here, now there are more than 94,000. 90% have fled from Myanmar or Burma. Of the rest, most are from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and Sri Lanka. They're assessed and then registered by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

Refugee (Translation): We have applied to the UNHCR hoping to get their protection. We hope they will give it to us.

But the UNHCR can provide very little real protection in Malaysia. It's a point that won't be lost on the 800 asylum seekers Australia will send here.

woman: Once you get your card there is a phone number at the back which starts with 012, ok, it's at the back of your card, right?

I filmed these Burmese refugees collecting the cards that prove their claims have been recognised by the UNHCR. But their status as refugees isn't recognised under Malaysian law they are considered to be illegal immigrants.

Woman: 012 is the detention hotline it's open from 8am in the morning until 11pm at night, 7 days a week. And this is the number you call if you have any problems with the authorities.

So what's in store for the 800 asylum seekers that Australia plans to send here? In 2009 I found several Tamil families crowded into a few tiny rooms.

Female refugee (Translation): An extra family has joined us, now we are five families.

They had been in Malaysia for 18 months after fleeing the conflict in Sri Lanka. But the families were vulnerable here too. As illegal immigrants, they weren't allowed to work and the children couldn't go to school. They also lived in constant fear of being arrested.

Refugee (Translation): The police caught me a few times, when I was caught they would take everything from me, they would take my papers, handcuff me and take me away. Sometimes we give them money whatever money we have.

Female refugee (Translation): If we are caught, our children are left at home alone, that is why we go out as a family and get back home as a family. If we are in jail the kids are alone but if we all get caught then we are all going to suffer. That is what we fear!

For more than a year the families had lived in a state of self-imposed house arrest. I asked Malaysia's Deputy Home Affairs Minister about their plight.

Reporter: Many refugees I've met describe being harassed by the police forced to pay bribes, sometimes threatened with having their UNHCR cards confiscated. Have you heard these allegations? Are these allegations being investigated?

Abu Seman Yusop, Home Affairs Deputy Minister: There's no report made. Of course if there is a report made, of course our official will do investigation of the matter.

Reporter: But the UNHCR says it has raised these complaints with you, so have many other human rights groups.

Abu Seman Yusop: But as far as we are concerned we have not received any complaint.

Even more than the police, this is whom refugees in Malaysia truly fear. RELA is a militia made up of half a million volunteers. After just two days of training, the government uses them to crack down on illegal immigrants. In 2009 I was invited to film a surprise raid after midnight on an immigrant neighbourhood. The volunteers were told to be on their best behaviour.

RELA commander (Translation): I ask all the leaders to ensure that their troops do not act violently. Don't hit or kick, be gentle treat them like your girlfriend.

RELA has been condemned in the past for human rights abuses, but seemed happy for me to tag along. Malaysia has more than a million illegal immigrants and believes tough measures are necessary. The volunteers spread out and started going from door to door looking for migrants. If they were too slow, an officer could authorise the use of force. Their job is to take anyone who is not Malaysian outside to have their documents checked. At this stage it didn't matter if they're here legally or not. No one liked being woken up in the middle of the night.

RELA (Translation): Be quick, otherwise we will break in and take your passport with you.

Woman (Translation): My passport and mobile phone?

RELA (Translation): Yes.

Out on the street, their documents were taken and examined by officers from the Immigration Department. They decided who should be arrested and who got to go back to bed.

Woman: Okay, thank you!

Although refugees are also illegal immigrants, the government insists they are not arrested or detained.

Reporter: Have you found anyone here who has a UNHCR card?

RELA: No, obviously we release them.

Reporter: You release the people with the UNHCR card?

RELA: Yes, yes, yes.

The UNHCR says fewer refugees are being picked up these days, but that it's still happening. Most that I spoke to said they had a friend or relative who'd been arrested. When the prisoners were taken back to RELA headquarters, I discovered that tonight was no exception.

Reporter: Where are you from?

Abdu Rahim: I am from Myanmar.

Contrary to what I'd been told, six of the men here had been arrested despite being registered as refugees.

Reporter: You have a UNHCR card?

Abdu Rahim: Yeah sure, I here already 5 years.

Reporter: And you've given them the card.

Abdu Rahim: My name is Abdu Rahim, card number is 03C13837. Just so many problems coming here and I tell so many these people were no good treat me like animals. I know.... Why, I don't know.

Abdu Rahim had tried to call the UNHCR detention hotline, but it was the middle of the night and it was closed.

Reporter: So what will happen if you can't get hold of them at the office?
 Abdu Rahim: I don't know about this, now I have no good feeling.

RELA: Where's your document? Okay. Okay.

Reporter: Sir, tell me what happens if your men do find someone with a UNHCR card? What is the procedure?

RELA: So immigration asked us to detain them then we have to bring them to the Immigration depot. We're going to bring them to the depot Lenggeng.

Reporter: The detention centre.

RELA: Yes yes yes.

This is where Abdu Rahim and all the others would be taken. The Lenggeng immigration "depot" outside Kuala Lumpur. This was the first time Malaysia had allowed a foreign journalist to film inside one of its detention centres. At the time there were more than 1400 prisoners squeezed inside, there are 500 now, with many transferred to detention centres elsewhere in Malaysia to ease the overcrowding.

Guard: As you can see now, they are not comfortable inside there not really comfortable.

Detainee: The food is very.... I don't know if it's contaminated if the dog see the food, the dog cannot eat it. A dog see this food, they cannot eat it.

Detainee 2: Have you seen the tray of food, the tray we eat? You go and see, you know

Each prisoner got some rice, and a couple of pieces of meat and vegetable. The stench was awful. This is Shanmulingham, he's a Tamil who said he had fled Sri Lanka because the army wanted to arrest him.

Reporter: Have you gone to the UNHCR at all? Have you claimed asylum?

He said he's been here for six weeks and he was waiting for the UNHCR to organise his release. And this is Prabhakaran. He'd been here for a month and was also registered as a refugee. He was nervous about speaking in front of the immigration officers.

Reporter: How have you found life in Malaysia as a refugee?

Prabhakaran (Translation): I cannot tell you much. We live in fear over there and we are living in fear here too. We don't know our fate, I have been here a month, nothing is certain.

Reporter: When I visited the immigration detention centre I found several refugees there who had UNHCR cards.

Abu Seman Yusop: Ah, don't think so.

Reporter: I did, and the UNHCR confirms this, and in fact the immigration officials also confirm this.

Abu Seman Yusop: That's the information I've been given by my personnel.

Reporter: That there are no refugees being held on the detention centres. That's what you've been told?

Abu Seman Yusop: Yes.

Graham Thom, Amnesty International: It shows very clearly the disconnect between what is happening with the senior bureaucracy in Malaysia and what is actually happening on the ground. When they're dealing with a million illegal foreign workers, you know for them even to worry about 90,000 refugees, you know it's not even on their radar and that's where the problem will be.

The UNHCR tells me the situation has improved in the past couple of years and it can get refugees out of detention faster. But it can't prevent them from ending up here in the first place. And in a country that routinely canes illegal immigrants, things can get even worse. Last year Amnesty International interviewed 27 Burmese refugees who'd been caned for immigration offences.

Graham Thom: Our report highlighted that a number of recognised refugees were caned. They're brought before these courts which are actually attached to the detention centre, the guards are telling them just plead guilty, it's your best way to get out of here, and within a matter of minutes they've been sentenced to judicial caning. This is something that we witnessed first hand.

Reporter: The Prime Minister Julia Gillard says Malaysia has undertaken to treat asylum seekers sent from Australia with dignity and respect and in accordance with human rights standards. How comfortable are you with that assurance?

Graham Thom: We have very real concerns around that assurance. Because again, the level of control that the senior bureaucracy in Malaysia has over the militias that are rounding people up, and the level of transparency that occurs once somebody is rounded up and ends up in a detention centre is virtually non-existent.

Australia's Minister for Immigration, Chris Bowen, wouldn't agree to give Dateline an interview or provide direct answers to emailed questions. In a written statement, he said:

"This new policy is about breaking the people smugglers' business model... The message is a very clear one: don't get on that boat!"

Many refugees I met in 2009 said it's conditions like these in Malaysia that drive people to try to reach Australia.

Refugee (Translation): Once we've survived the sea, we'll live in peace, which is why we want to go to Australia. After a while here, we all hope to go there. We can't live like this.

But 800 unlucky asylum seekers who risk the dangerous sea voyage will soon be driven back to Malaysia. The Australian government has vowed to cut off the only real escape route they have.

Julia Gillard, Prime Minister of Australia: If someone seeks to come to Australia, then they are at risk of going to Malaysia and going to the back of the queue.

Graham Thom: The queue does not exist and I think for the government to keep peddling what is an appalling myth about refugee protection is really dangerous when you think about where we are sending these people to.

Reporter/Camera: Amos Roberts
Producers: Aaron Thomas, Ashley Smith
Researcher: Melanie Morrison
Fixers: S. Nagarajan, Mien Ly, Nelson Benjamin Editors: Slavica Gajic, Rowan Tucker-Evans, Wayne Love
Translations/Subtitling: Danny Yi, Maha Solomon, Jing Han
Original Music composed by Vicki Hansen

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