Tan Tian Maw sits in an office on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, hands trembling in her lap, and describes how she was raped by two Malaysian policemen.
Her voice is soft and barely audible above the dragon boat drummer practising outside.
“She hasn’t had any trauma counselling,” her lawyer, Latheefa Koya, explains. “No one has really helped her.”
PICTURE GALLERY | Freedom beckons for refugees heading to Perth | Hope in short supply | Malaysia deal under pressure |
It is 10pm on a Friday and the Rohingyan refugee has agreed to tell her story for the first time.
She says she is not worried about the publicity: “I am in enough trouble already. There is nothing more they can do to me”. The Burmese mother of two says she was riding a friend’s motorbike in November last year when she was pulled over by two police officers who asked her for the bike’s licence.
When she couldn’t produce it, she says she was dragged into the patrol car where the pair took turns raping her.
Doctors confirmed an assault had taken place.
The UNHCR helped file a complaint with the Malaysian police, who initially claimed the rapists were fake police officers. They then said the patrol car was stolen.
Later, they conceded the pair were real officers but could not be identified and repeatedly questioned her about the ownership of the bike.
“No investigation has taken place,” Ms Koya says. “Nothing will happen. And this is not unusual. This is standard for refugees.
“There is a lot of police abuse, even with Malaysians but worse with refugees. We’re talking extortion, deaths in custody, shootings. They call it ‘extrajudicial killings’ because they’re not being killed as part of a death sentence. They are shot in the course of arrest or something like that.”
More than 94,000 refugees are registered with the UNHCR in Malaysia but unofficial figures put the number closer to 200,000, all spread out in the cities and the slums and living in constant fear of raids, abuse and imprisonment in one of the country’s 13 detention centres.
This is the flipside to the planned Australia-Malaysia refugee swap and the one that has attracted the international ire of human rights groups.
It is here – in a country that has refused to sign the UN convention guaranteeing refugee rights – that Australia plans to drop 800 asylum seekers who arrive on Australian shores in exchange for 4000 registered refugees over the next four years.
“All Australia is relying on is the fact that Malaysia has guaranteed they will be treated humanely,” says Renuka Balasubramaniam, one of a group of Malaysian lawyers who formed Lawyers for Liberty four months ago, working pro bono for refugee rights.
“All migrants and refugees in Malaysia, as long as they’re non-citizens, are susceptible to regular and frequent and persistent harassment by authorities on threat of arrest – and this is regular thing for all of them.
“Because of the susceptibility to harassment, arrest, detention, whipping and trafficking – in that order – these are the reasons it is a bad idea to send them here.
“I think it’s completely irresponsible. Totally irresponsible. You are supposed to be a responsible country.”
Her colleague, Eric Paulsen, leans back in his chair and says he can understand the populist politics behind it. “The idea is to send a very strong deterrent message, that if you come, this is what’s going to happen . . . we’re going to send you to one of the worst places for refugees in the world,” Mr Paulsen says.
“This is the huge big stick approach, ‘If you come this way, this is what’s going to happen’.”
So what’s in it for Malaysia?
“Just money,” Mr Paulsen says.
“It’s like ‘I don’t care if you give me rubbish, I’m just going to throw it on the heap with everything else . . . it’s not like I have to take care of them’.”
The next morning, in one of Kuala Lumpur’s poorest districts, Burmese refugee Patrick Sang Bawi Hnin walks towards a non-descript doorway which marks the hidden entrance to the Chin Refugee Centre, an underground help group set up by Chin refugees.
A group of men have been waiting for him. They say their Malaysian boss, for whom they had been working for two months, has refused to pay them. Because they are working illegally, they have no rights.
“There is not much we can do,” Mr Hnin says. “There is always exploitation.”
He pulls out his mobile phone, one of the cheapest handsets available: “See this? We never carry good phones.
“When the police stop us and demand money, they also take the phones. If we have bad phones, they don’t want them”.
The Chin ethnic minority make up the biggest proportion of refugees in Malaysia and are the most organised.
But if the 800 asylum seekers that Australia directs here are Afghans or Iraqis, as is likely to be the case, they won’t have the support network that comes with numbers.
“Malaysia is not a good country to be sending these people to,” Ms Balasubramaniam says.
“They might have guaranteed these people will be treated humanely but Malaysia has no qualms about giving those types of assurances.
“They give it all the time. Malaysia sits on the Human Rights Council, in spite of its track record. So what they say counts for nothing.”
At the UNHCR compound, near central Kuala Lumpur, staff say they have no idea what shape the Australia-Malaysian deal will take.
Not only has Malaysia not signed the UN convention guaranteeing refugees certain rights, they are not even recognised under domestic law.
So refugee processing is done by the UNHCR, who told _The West Australian _that they have not been consulted about the plan and assume the 800 asylum seekers sent from Australia would be dropped into the pool of 94,000 refugees living illegally in Malaysian cities after a “brief” period of detention for processing.
“This is why we are so incensed, ” Ms Balasubramaniam says.