By Eric Paulsen

IT was heartening to see the whole world condemning the Israeli attack on the aid flotilla bound for Gaza. While the Palestinians’ struggle for a homeland deserves all the international aid, support and solidarity – we must not turn a blind eye to others with a similar or even worse plight than the Palestinians.

Refugees are defined as people who are unable to return to their home countries due to fear of persecution, war or conflict, and they are entitled under international law to protection and assistance. The Palestinians make up a substantial number – 4.8 million refugees from the total 15.2 million refugees worldwide as of end 2009, according to UNHCR, the UN refugee agency.

It estimates there are 90,000 refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia. As of January last year, only 36,671 refugees and 9,323 asylum seekers were registered with UNHCR in Malaysia. This registration affords them only a small measure of protection as the government does not generally recognise refugees but treats them like “illegal” migrants.

The majority, some 90% are from Myanmar.

World Refugee Day on June 20 saw little or no improvement to the lives of refugees in Malaysia. Refugees are still treated as undocumented migrants and subjected to harsh immigration laws and policies.

Without documents, they are unable to work legally and live in perpetual fear of raids, arrest and harassment. Consequently, they live in the margins of society, constantly in hiding and living in poverty.

When arrested they are detained at detention centres for several months (sometimes even years) before being charged, jailed, whipped (men only) and deported, mainly to the Thai border – and some find themselves sold to human traffickers.

In May and September last year, eight Myanmar detainees died in two detention centres due to Leptospirosis, an infectious disease caused by water or food contaminated with animal urine. Detention conditions are deplorable and inhumane – overcrowding, sweltering, lack bedding, poor hygiene and sanitation, insufficient and poor quality food, irregular access to clean water and medical treatment, all of which fall far short of minimum international standards. Serious abuse by detention centre staff is also common, including arbitrary beatings.

Then Home Minister Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar reported to Parliament that between 1999 and 2008, there were 2,571 detainee deaths in prisons, rehabilitation centres and immigration detention centres. In December 2008, former Suhakam Commissioner Datuk Siva Subramaniam said 1,300 foreigners died in detention during the past six years due to lack of medical treatment and neglect.

How can we be blind to this serious ill-treatment of foreigners including refugees at our own doorstep when we can see and act on the injustice perpetrated on the Palestinians many thousand miles away?

Can we be principled and take human rights including refugee protection seriously and consistently? Refugees irrespective of their nationality (religion, ethnicity, political opinion, etc) must be afforded international protection and we cannot pick and choose who we want to assist and who we want to abuse, detain or deport.

Refugees are real people with real needs. At the very minimum, they need clean water, food, sanitation, shelter, health care and protection from violence and abuse. Can we not provide that? Can we not help them so they have a chance to rebuild their lives, and hopefully one day return to their home countries as preferred by most refugees?

The answer is “yes”. After the December 2004 tsunami in Aceh, the government on humanitarian grounds issued the IMM13 work and residence permits to some 30,000 Acehnese who were then seeking refuge in Malaysia. The temporary protection ended in 2008 following the success of the peace accord in Aceh.

But most of the time, the government’s answer is “no”. The Rohingyas/Burmese Muslims were also supposed to be issued with the IMM13 permit in August 2006. But after some allegations of fraud and corruption, the Home Ministry suspended the scheme. About 5,000 Rohingyas had by then registered with the Immigration Department where they paid RM90 registration fee but no IMM13 permits were issued.

The government has refused to sign the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (144 countries have signed up) ie the key UN legal document that defines who is a refugee, their rights and legal obligation of state parties. Malaysia’s refusal to sign the convention should not however absolve them from not recognising refugees as a special category of vulnerable persons in need of temporary protection as it is bound by other international human rights laws and standards including customary international law that prohibits refoulement (forced expulsion) and torture.

If Malaysia wants to be taken seriously when speaking on human rights issues, it must act consistently for the protection and respect for all human rights wherever they occur.

Instead of mistreating refugees, the government should provide them with documents, basic humanitarian assistance, access to social services, a chance to work and educate their children, so that they can lead a semblance of a dignified life while they are in our country. And when the time comes, they are able to return to their home countries or resettled in third countries, hopefully in a better condition than they were when they first arrived.

In February, Home Ministry secretary-general Datuk Mahmood Adam announced plans to issue identification cards to refugees recognised by UNHCR that would entitle them to stay temporarily in the country and perform odd jobs. This plan if implemented properly will be a landmark moment in refugee protection – and finally, a real reason for Malaysia to commemorate World Refugee Day.

Eric Paulsen is a member of Lawyers for Liberty, a newly formed human rights and law reform initiative.