Malaysia’s move to exempt 800 boatpeople from its immigration laws has led to activists questioning the preferential treatment.

PETALING JAYA: Malaysia’s decision to grant the 800 boatpeople sent from Australia exemption from its immigration laws has been met with hostility from local activist groups.

The Australian media yesterday reported that the asylum seekers would not be treated as illegal immigrants, thus preventing them from ending up in detention centres and facing the threat of caning.

They would instead spend six weeks in a new Australian-funded holding centre where they would be issued special identity tags and subsequently released into the community.

This latest development contradicts Malaysia’s earlier refusal to create a two-tiered standard of care between the 800 and the other 90,000 refugees and asylum seekers already in the country.

The immunity will be granted through the seldom-used Section 55 of the Immigration Act 1959/63, which allows the home minister to exempt any persons from any provisions in the Act.

While the move appeared to be a positive step for a country with a dubious human rights record, activist groups are demanding to know why the same treatment has not been extended to the other asylum seekers here.

Tenaganita programme director, Aegile Fernandez, expressed bewilderment over the identity tags and said she had no inkling as to what it would constitute.

“The government doesn’t recognise refugees, so how will these identity tags set the 800 apart from the rest?” she asked. “Even existing refugees are only given a UNHCR card which doesn’t offer any immunity from harassment by the authorities.”

“And if these 800 are given a special tag then it is outright discrimination. Why should they receive preferential treatment just because they have been sent by Australia?”

Fernandez also warned that the immunity could backfire on the group as it would be ostracised by other refugee communities for enjoying recognition without having to struggle for it.

The Lawyers for Liberty adviser, Eric Paulsen, raised concerns over the secrecy surrounding details of the exemption and called for transparency from both governments.

“We don’t know much about it,” he said. “Will asylum seekers be allowed employment? Can their children attend public schools? Will this information trickle down to law enforcement officers on the ground? Will a future group also receive the same exemption?”

“Granting these 800 people immunity is a short-sighted move… (it doesn’t reflect) the harsh reality that refugees face daily. Malaysia must make more comprehensive, rational and institutionalised changes to make the deal more acceptable.”

Suara Rakyat Malaysia (Suaram), meanwhile, condemned the swap in its entirety, saying that it was appalled at the government’s attempt to edit out human rights from the draft agreement.

Australia’s ABC TV had obtained a copy of the draft containing Malaysia’s proposed amendments which included its refusal for the 800 asylum seekers to be subjected to the 1951 Refugee Convention.

UNHCR’s representative in Kuala Lumpur, Alan Vernon, also confirmed that Malaysia had removed all references to human rights in the draft.

“Suaram urges both governments to stop playing a zero-sum game in their efforts to combat human trafficking and smuggling,” it said in a statement yesterday.

“Both governments must respect the rights of all individuals seeking asylum in Australia and not gamble on their fate by transferring them to a country that has not ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention.”

“By signing this agreement, the Australian government is effectively violating its own obligation under the convention.”

Stephanie Sta Maria | June 10, 2011, Free Malaysia Today