Malaysia To Probe Abuse Claims

A new report prompts Malaysia to investigate persistent allegations that Burmese migrants have suffered gravely, while traffickers act with impunity.

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burmese-protest-malaysia-30.jpg Burmese refugees protest in front of the offices of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Kuala Lumpur, Jan. 21, 2009.
KUALA LUMPUR—Malaysia’s prime minister says his government will investigate a blistering report by a U.S. Senate panel that says thousands of Burmese migrants have been handed over to human traffickers and sent to work in the Thai sex industry.

"We will take appropriate action," Prime Minister Najib Razak told reporters. "We do not want Malaysia to be used as a point for human trafficking ... but we need to know more facts."

In Washington, the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations issued a report—based on a year-long review—saying illegal Burmese migrants have been deported from Malaysia, handed to human traffickers, and forced to work in brothels, fishing boats, and restaurants in Thailand if they didn’t have enough money to buy their own release.

According to the Senate committee report, "a few thousand" Burmese migrants in recent years might have become victims of extortion and trafficking once they were deported across Malaysia's northern border with Thailand.
They said their boss was highly connected to police in these regions. They said they could do whatever they wished."

Trafficking victim, Wunna, from Rangoon

"Upon arrival at the Malaysia-Thailand border, human traffickers reportedly take possession of the migrants," the report said.

One unnamed migrant is quoted as saying that women "are sold at a brothel if they look good. If they are not beautiful, they might sell them at a restaurant or housekeeping job."

The report called on Malaysia to investigate and prosecute "the trafficking, selling and slavery of Burmese and other migrants… The prospect that Burmese migrants, having fled the heavy hand of the Burmese junta, only to find themselves in harm’s way in Malaysia seemed beyond belief."

Malaysia’s former home minister, Syed Hamid Albar, earlier dismissed these claims as "wild allegations." But national police chief Musa Hassan said earlier this month that Malaysian and Thai police and immigration officials were investigating the claims.

In a statement, New York-based Human Rights Watch urged Malaysia to "act on this U.S. Senate report to protect the rights of refugees and victims of human trafficking."

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) cites the presence of more than 42,300 Burmese refugees in Malaysia as of late March.

Victim describes impunity

Wunna, a 27-year-old Burmese trafficking victim from Rangoon who worked for his traffickers for four months, said his captors appeared to have no fear of the authorities.

"The traffickers maintain bases in Alor Setar, Jitra, and Chunglum," he said in an interview in April, referring to three districts in Malaysia’s Kedah state.

"They said their boss was highly connected to police in these regions. They said they could do whatever they wished," Wunna said.

"When we were handed over to them [by immigration officials], they said they could kill us anytime. One of them said he wouldn’t be charged, arrested, or imprisoned for killing me. He said someone would just come and collect my body, and clean up, and he would stay and work."

Abuses alleged

As RFA's Burmese service reported in January 2008, Burmese migrant workers in Malaysia live at the mercy of international human-trafficking gangs who sell them back and forth as slave labor with the full knowledge of Malaysian and Thai immigration officials.

Thousands of Burmese migrant laborers find themselves stuck in a human rights no-man's-land after losing their legal status, often because employers withhold passports or refuse to pay their return airfare.

Reports of mistreatment and substandard living conditions within Malaysia's little-known immigration prisons are rife, as undocumented migrants are detained for indefinite periods.

Conditions in the detention centers have sparked protests, complaints to Malaysia's human rights body, riots, and breakouts.

...those who are arrested are still paying to come back."

Latifah Koya, Malaysia Bar Council

Immigration officers often stage raids on suspected illegal immigrants using volunteer security forces, the People's Volunteer Corps (RELA), who have wide-ranging powers, the right to bear arms, and little professional training.

Rights groups say children, pregnant women, and United Nations refugees awaiting resettlement to a third country have all been recently detained in such raids.

Human rights lawyers say that Malaysia's legal system lacks clear distinctions among illegal immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers, and that immigration officers can imprison anyone without papers.

New tactics?

Irene Fernandez, the founder of Malaysia’s human rights group Tenaganita, said her organization has seen some recent tactical changes.

"Trafficking is continuing," she said, but added:

"In raids [by RELA or immigration police], not all family members are arrested. They leave one or two. So they can go back to them to ask for money to release their relatives. That’s another strategy. They are also already negotiating deals while in detention."

Latifah Koya, a lawyer working with Malaysia Bar Council’s legal aid program, said it was impossible to confirm a reported reduction in trafficking "because the border is tightly controlled—no one is there."

"What we can say is that those who were arrested are still paying to come back,” she added.

U.S. $200 per person

In its most recent report on human rights around the world, the U.S. State Department said reported abuses by RELA "included rape, beatings, extortion, theft, pilfering homes, destroying UN High Commissioners for Refugees (UNHCR) and other status documents, and pillaging refugee settlements."

It also cited "credible allegations of immigration officials' involvement in the trafficking of Burmese refugees … along the Malaysia-Thai border."

"Immigration officials allegedly received [about U.S. $200] per person. Several local NGOs estimated immigration officials handed over a significant number of Burmese refugees transported to the border to traffickers," it said.

Informed sources said 20 percent of the victims were unable to pay the ransom and were sold for the purposes of labor or sexual exploitation, it said.

Original reporting by Kyaw Min Htun for RFA's Burmese service. Additional reporting by the Associated Press. RFA Burmese service director: Nancy Shwe. Executive producer: Susan Lavery. Written and produced in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.


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