Friday, November 28, 2014

Parliament to debate urgent motion on refugee mistreatment in Malaysia

Locked up in a Malaysian detention centre, these women have not been able to call home since they were detained. ― Picture by Steve Chao/Al-Jazeera

LA LUMPUR, Nov 25 ― Federal lawmakers will debate today an emergency motion on the alleged mistreatment of refugees in Malaysia, following claims that refugees here have been made to purchase their United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) cards through corrupt means.

Dewan Rakyat Speaker Tan Sri Pandikar Amin Mulia said the motion, which was tabled by opposition lawmakers Lim Lip Eng and Ong Kian Ming yesterday, will be debated in the House at 4.30pm this evening.

Pandikar said the motion is urgent, in public interest and specific.

On Saturday, Steve Chao, senior presenter for Al-Jazeera’s Asian current affairs programme 101 East, who carried out a covert investigation, claimed refugee communities in the country have paid anything from RM1,700 to RM3,500 for each card, allegedly brokered by UNHCR officials in Malaysia.

Chao ― whose exclusive “Malaysia's Unwanted” first aired on the Qatar-based news broadcaster’s channel on Astro last week ― had gone undercover to visit the immigration detention centre in the national capital, posing as a priest to check on the abysmal conditions that refugees and asylum seekers have to endure.

Chao claimed that aside from the sale of UNHCR cards, there was also fraud involving some 3,000 asylum seekers who allegedly used false identities to jump the queue and gain early interviews with UNHCR staff to determine refugee status.

“About 1,000 of them, we understand have been resettled in countries like the US, Canada and Australia,” he said, while adding that the refugees interviewed knew that UNHCR services were supposed to be free of charge.

In an email interview, Chao told Malay Mail Online that UNHCR’S head Richard Towle was aware of the illegal activities and all resettlement of refugees was suspended in Malaysia for a period this year due to the investigation into fraudulent practices.

Lim, in the urgent motion today, noted that the documentary has also been widely reported in The Guardian and South China Morning Post.

“Seeing that Malaysia will be chairing the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2015 - if the issue of refugees is badly managed ― will affect Malaysia's capability in effectively managing this responsibility,” said the Segambut DAP MP in his motion.

The Malaysian authorities have also acknowledged that they were aware of the “scandals” involving UNHCR in the country, and have urged the refugee agency to be “more transparent” and share information on refugees recognised by the UN, he added.

Contacted separately by Malay Mail Online, UNHCR Malaysia spokesman Yante Ismail said the refugee agency has a “zero tolerance policy” on corruption involving any of their processes or individuals or organisations working with it.

She stressed that they “take allegations of corruption very seriously”, which are investigated thoroughly if proven to have any credible basis and appropriate action taken if proven to be true.

In June, Malaysia was downgraded to the lowest ranking in the US state department's Trafficking in Persons (TiP) report indicating that the country had failed to comply with the most basic international requirements to prevent trafficking and protect victims within its borders.

Malaysia was relegated to Tier 3, and placed in the same category as countries under authoritarian regimes like Zimbabwe, North Korea and Saudi Arabia.

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