Sunday, February 13, 2011

Asylum Seekers in Malaysia

ELIZABETH JACKSON: Every year thousands of illegal migrants enter Malaysia fleeing persecution and searching for asylum or hoping to head further south to Australia.

But for the asylum seekers, making their way to Malaysia comes with big risks.

To combat people smuggling, Kuala Lumpur - with millions of dollars of support from Australia - has beefed up its maritime patrols.

Tough laws in Malaysia marginalise asylum seekers and those caught face long term detention.

Gavin Fang reports from Kuala Lumpur.

GAVIN FANG: I'm on patrol in the Straits of Malacca off Malaysia's west coast with the country's coastguard, the Maritime Enforcement Agency.

Formed six years ago mainly to tackle pirates, the agency is now playing a bigger role in Malaysia's clampdown on people smuggling.

In places along the Straits of Malacca it's just a few kilometres by boat across to the Indonesian islands off Sumatra, and commander Khoo Teng Chuan tells me that the many fishing villages conceal places where asylum seekers - dubbed illegal migrants in Malaysia - hide before trying to head south.

KHOO TENG CHUAN: This is one of the areas where they will bring the people out, so basically what the boat will do is they will come in here, embark the illegal immigrants and then they will leave from here.

GAVIN FANG: Malaysia's position at the heart of south-east Asia makes it a key transit country for asylum seekers and a target for people smuggling.

It's a big business, described by maritime authorities as extremely lucrative, with links between Malaysia, South-Asia and the Middle East.

The officers on patrol tell me they've intercepted Afghan asylum seekers before carrying thousands of US dollars to pay for the trip south.

(Sound of maritime officers questioning fishermen)

On a fishing platform the maritime officers stop to question and check the papers of the workers.

Malaysia has a mixed relationship with foreign workers. Some two million live in the country doing cheap labour vital to the local economy.

Another 80,000 registered refugees also live in Malaysia waiting resettlement elsewhere. They aren't allowed to work at all but have to to survive.

(Sound of Mawia talking)

I met one of those refugees, a 26-year-old man named Mawia through a group working for the rights of Chin refugees from Burma.

Mawia fled Burma after a disagreement with soldiers over stolen crops from his family farm.

He entered Malaysia without proper papers and two years ago was swooped up by police in a raid on a friends flat.

The 26-year-old has a ready smile and talks freely about his escape from Burma, but he's on the verge of tears and his voice drops to a whisper when he speaks about life in detention.

The four months he spent in an immigration camp, where he was given two strokes of the cane, were he says the most frightening and terrible of his life.

Under Malaysian law, so-called illegal migrants can be jailed for five years and given up to six strokes of the cane.

Amnesty International has described Malaysia's treatment of immigration detainees as torture and the human rights group says countries like Australia need to take some responsibility.

In October, Australia provided $1 million worth of hardware, including patrol boats and night vision equipment to Malaysia's maritime enforcement agency to help crack down on the people smuggling trade.

The director of enforcement at the Maritime Enforcement Agency told me he felt Australia saw Malaysia as a buffer country to prevent asylum seekers heading further south.

That was a view shared by vocal Malaysian human rights campaigner Irene Fernandez.

She says pressure from countries like Australia to disrupt the people smuggling trade is in part driving the government in KL to become more vigilant about the movement of asylum seekers boats.

And she says that makes Australia in part complicit in the treatment of asylum seekers detained and caned in Malaysia.

I asked the director of the Maritime Enforcement Agency how he felt about that treatment and he admitted that it was "harsh".

He argued that without a strong deterrent the asylum seekers would keep coming. But then he indicated that he had sympathy for the asylum seekers' plight as they faced persecution at home.

Which left me wondering - Malaysia seems intent on fighting people smuggling but maybe the Maritime Enforcement Agency officers on the water wish they were back fighting pirates, where the difference between the good and bad guys is more black and white.

ELIZABETH JACKSON: Gavin Fang reporting from Kuala Lumpur.