Suhakam says that it was misquoted as supporting the Australia-Malaysia refugee swap.

KUALA LUMPUR: The Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) has shot down an earlier report implicating its support of the Australia-Malaysia refugee swap.

Last Monday, Suhakam commissioner, Dr Khaw Lake Tee, was quoted by the New Straits Times as saying, “Malaysia has given a firm commitment that the 800 asylum seekers would not be caned, would not be put in detention centres and would be treated with dignity and respect. If the arrangement with Australia results in better treatment of all refugees, that is something we would welcome”.

A group of human rights activists handed over a memorandum to Sukaham this morning protesting Khaw’s statement. The memorandum was signed by Lawyers for Liberty (LFL), Suara Rakyat Malaysia (Suaram), Tenaganita and Malaysian Social Research Institute (MSRI).

However, Khaw clarified that she had merely been reading out a statement by Australian Immigration Minister, Chris Bowen, and that it did not represent her or Suhakam’s stand.

“The statement was wrongly attributed to her and she has set the record straight,” said Latheefa Koya from LFL. “But we also reiterated our concern that the immunity promised to this group isn’t extended to all asylum seekers here.”

Malaysia last week decided to grant the 800 asylum seekers immunity from its harsh immigration laws. They would not be treated as illegal immigrants thus preventing them from ending up in detention centres and facing the threat of caning.

Instead they would 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 exemption contradicted Malaysia’s earlier refusal to create a two-tiered standard of care between the 800 and the other 90,000 asylum seekers already in the country.

In the dark

“We want Suhakam to take a stronger stand on this issue,” Latheefa said. “We want to get more details of this swap which is currently shrouded in secrecy. And we want references to human rights to be re-inserted into the draft agreement.”

According to UNHCR’s representative in Kuala Lumpur, Alan Vernon, Malaysia’s amendments to the draft agreement included the removal of all references to human rights.

“Even Suhakam is in the dark over the swap details and hasn’t been able to gain access to the government,” said Eric Paulsen of LFL. “This doesn’t bode well especially since Suhakam is the human rights adviser to the government.”

“We want Suhakam to question the government on the details of this deal and urge it to abandon the deal all together. Don’t wait until the deal is signed and its too late.”

FMT also understands that only Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Brown are apparently in favour of the swap.

Video clip

A refugee aid-worker who asked to remain anonymous said that she had recently returned from a trip to Austalia and that the MPs were still debating the issue.

“Only Gillard and Bowen are supporting it,” she said. “The other MPs are very doubtful and are being urged by the Australian public to abandon it because of Malaysia’s appalling human rights record.”

In a move to put further pressure on both governments, local activists are distributing a video clip by Amnesty International of an asylum seeker being caned.

“Australia has already widely publicised Malaysia’s decision to exclude the human rights references in the agreement,” Latheefa said. “This clip will further depict Malaysia’s poor treatment of asylum seekers.”

Meanwhile. Eric said that mere commitment from the government is not sufficient, and that laws and policies need to be changed to truly make a difference.

“Otherwise, those on the ground like the police and Rela will not take it seriously,” he said. “The current commitment has no status of law which means there are no consequences if it’s breached. So the authorities on the ground will not abide by it and the 800 will likely be harrassed just like the others.”

By Stephanie Sta Maria | June 14, 2011