Sunday, October 17, 2010

An open letter to Irrawaddy News

Over the past ten years, community-based organizations representing different ethnic nationalities from Burma have formed to organize, assist, and protect their respective communities. In recognition that community-based operations in Malaysia would benefit from increased cooperation, the Coalition of Burma Ethnics Malaysia (COBEM) was formed in 2007 to respond to the needs of the ethnic refugee and migrant community from Burma living in Malaysia.

COBEM now represents the Chin, Kachin, Arakan, Shan, Karen, Mon and Karenni ethnic communities. Membership of this coalition includes the following community-based organizations: Chin Refugee Committee (CRC), Alliance for Chin Refugees (ACR), Kachin Refugee Committee (KRC), Malaysia Karen Organization (MKO), Organization of Karenni Development (OKD), Mon Refugee Organization (MRO), Shan Refugee Organization (SRO) and Arakan Refugee Relief Committee (ARRC).
As COBEM, we are writing to express our serious concerns over the factual inaccuracies and unfounded accusations in the article, “UNHCR Affiliates Accused of Refugee Corruption”, published by the Irrawaddy on 2 October.

Firstly, COBEM organizations are not ‘brokers’ as described in the Irrawaddy article.  We are independent community-based organizations working for the benefit of our respective communities.  Unfortunately the context in Malaysia is very challenging, as arrest, prolonged detention in appalling conditions, caning, and exploitation are a daily reality for our communities.
Secondly, UNHCR has not delegated “the authority for issuing resettlement registration documents to Burmese groups based in Malaysia.”  Such groups have no control over the resettlement process from Malaysia.  In fact, resettlement to third countries from Malaysia is by no means guaranteed for people from Burma.
Thirdly, community-based organizations like the COBEM groups collect biographical data about newly-arrived members from their communities in Burma living all over Malaysia.  This information is then passed to the UNHCR, and added to UNHCR waiting lists for their registration and refugee status determination process, which assesses each individual’s claim for refugee status.
Each COBEM organization has a different system for collecting membership fees from their community members.  These nominal fees are used to provide a range of services to the ethnic communities.  Registered members are issued with a community card.  In the event of arrest, members can call on their community organizations to assist with negotiating their release wherever possible.  With the registration fees, COBEM organizations also provide a range of services to their communities, such as interpreters and assistance with medical fees in the event of hospitalization; support with finding employment; and education programs for children.
While a UNHCR card offers some protection for registered refugees, unfortunately it doesn’t prevent arrest or detention.  COBEM organizations compile lists of community and UNHCR-card holders held in detention camps, and send these to UNHCR.  UNHCR works to secure their release from detention facilities.
Refugee life in Malaysia is stressful and frustrating, as there can be a long wait for registration and refugee status determination by UNHCR, and not everyone’s claim is accepted by the agency. As the first point of contact for those who wish to claim refugee status, community-based organizations often bear the brunt of this frustration.  The unfounded accusations and inaccuracies contained in the Irrawaddy article undermine the important work that community-based organizations do to assist their community members.
The Irrawaddy has a strong reputation as an accurate, unbiased, independent news agency to protect. We therefore remind the Irrawaddy editorial team to carefully check the facts before publishing articles on the refugee situation in Malaysia.  We also kindly request the Irrawaddy to print this letter in response to the article, in the interests of balanced reporting.
Kennedy Lalram Lian

Coalition of Burma Ethnics, Malaysia (COBEM)

Kuala Lumpur