Malaysia must get its act together

Malaysia must get its act together

10 Nov 2010

gerhard-hoffstaeder-thumb Dr Gerhard Hoffstaedter
Email: g.hoffstaedter@latrobe.edu.au

First published in The Canberra Times on 8 November, 2010.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard was in Malaysia last week to discuss her planned East Timor regional processing centre for asylum-seekers. She was welcomed with much pomp and ceremony.

Malaysia has much to feel positive about. The previous week, Malaysian authorities had shut down a major human-trafficking syndicate operating out of the country's immigration department, one of those arrested was a senior official in that department.

As a reward Malaysia received high accolades from the Prime Minister. Indeed, it is highly unusual in Malaysia for high-ranking officials to be arrested in such a public fashion.

Malaysia is trying to reinvent itself, yet again, as a country that cares about human rights and international treaties. In 2009, the United States criticised Malaysia for its poor performance in the field of human trafficking.

Its track record on asylum-seekers fares even worse. Malaysia's subsequent revisions and better enforcement of the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act 2007, public relations and awareness campaigns, and training of enforcement officers is widely seen as appeasement and a smokescreen devised to shift focus on to the good work being done around human trafficking.

Most strikingly, people smugglers now face a maximum sentence of 20 years' jail or a fine of RM500,000 ($A170,000) or both as a result of the Act. Previously, the Immigration Act carried a penalty of a $A5000 fine or three years' imprisonment, or both.

There are two things very wrong here. The first is that the recent anti-trafficking sting has not played out according to the international rule of law. The nine arrested, seven of whom were from the immigration department and suspected of having taken bribes for their services, are now under arrest under the Internal Security Act. This is a relic of British colonial rule and allows the Malaysian Government to detain people without trial for two years. And this is renewable indefinitely. Thus it allows for indefinite detention without trial.

The question is: If the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act has been revised and much effort has been expended to make it seem more relevant, why then are the suspects being locked away under the Internal Security Act? This only reinforces long held reservations about Malaysia's human rights record.

The second issue is asylum-seekers. Malaysia is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and Protocol, which means it does not recognise refugees. The approximately 200,000 people who are either registered United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees refugees or unregistered asylum-seekers are not allowed to work and do not receive government support. They are desperately poor and marginalised in a society that has no place for them.

Some lucky ones are resettled by the UNHCR to safe third countries like Australia. However, they are the lucky few, for the majority is left in
limbo.

For many asylum-seekers the dangers they have fled from come back to haunt them in Malaysia where reports have documented kidnappings, extortion and human trafficking in collusion, or abetted by, government officials.
Some asylum-seekers in Malaysia told me that they were trapped in Malaysia, waiting for resettlement, but losing hope. Some were playing with the idea of attempting the dangerous and expensive journey across the sea to Australia.

Most potential boat people are put off by the danger, let alone the cost. Some had been cheated by people smugglers who had taken their money and with it their hope for a better future.

The proposed regional processing centre in East Timor may offer a way out of one limbo into another. The journey across Indonesia to East Timor is by far easier, cheaper and safer than any trip to Ashmore Reef or Christmas Island.

This posits a difficult question for Labor's East Timor solution: Will it lead to an exodus of asylum-seekers from Malaysia and Indonesia to East Timor?

East Timor would certainly not be happy about this, nor would others in the region if they are expected to help pay for it. Neither would it serve Australia's interests to fund a processing centre for the entire region in a part of the region that is still in the process of peace building. An influx of the region's asylum-seekers would jeopardise the ongoing rebuilding of its society and polity.

Dr Gerhard Hoffstaedter is a research fellow with La Trobe University's Institute for Human Security and co-founder of the Melbourne Free University Project. 

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