US Senate ‘Trafficking of Burmese Migrants’ Report Holds Malaysia and ASEAN Responsible and Demands Immediate Action
Gabrielle Chong Apr 25, 09 3:39pm
There is mounting pressure for newly-minted Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak to take action in the wake of a damning United States Senate report on human trafficking in Malaysia.
New York-based Human Rights Watch has called on Najib “to protect the rights of refugees and victims of human trafficking.”
Meanwhile, veteran parliamentarian Lim Kit Siang urged the government to respond to allegations that Malaysian officials are complicit in the human trafficking of refugees.
“This is not only most damaging to Malaysia’s international image but raises also grave questions about Malaysia’s human rights commitment in Asean,” said Lim.
Two days ago, the US Senate released a report which once again put Malaysia under the spotlight on its long-standing problem of human trafficking.
The report was the result of investigations prompted by allegations of the trafficking of thousands of Burmese refugees in Malaysia who were held in detention centres around the country.They were deported to the Thailand-Malaysia border, where they were extorted for up to RM2,000 each in return for safe journey back to Malaysia.
According to the report, as many as 10 percent of these refugees never made it back to Malaysia because of their inability to pay their ransom and were sold to human peddlers.
The male refugees were mainly sold as slaves into fishing industries, factories, plantations, while the female refugees were either sold as sex or domestic workers. There was no documentation on the fate of children.
‘Most young women deported to the Thai border are sexually abused, even in front of their husbands, by the syndicates, since no one dares to intervene as they would be shot or stabbed to death in the jungle,’’ an NGO worker was quoted by the report.
The Senate Committee on Foreign Relations which produced the report, titled ‘Trafficking and Extortion of Burmese Migrants in Malaysia and Southern Thailand’, comprised 18 senators led by former Democrat US presidential candidate John Kerry.
Gov’t officials in cohort with traffickers
In addition, the report cited troubling allegations of Malaysian officials - including Immigration Department officials, police and Ikatan Relawan Rakyat (Rela) officials - colluding with human traffickers for personal gain.
“Burmese migrants are reportedly taken by Malaysian government personnel from detention facilities to the Malaysia-Thailand border for deportation. Upon arrival at the Malaysia-Thailand border, human traffickers reportedly take possession of the migrants and issue ransom demands on an individual basis,” said the report.
“Migrants state that freedom is possible only once money demands are met. Specific payment procedures are outlined, which reportedly include bank accounts in Kuala Lumpur to which money should be transferred.
“The committee was informed that on some occasions, the ‘attendance’ list reviewed by traffickers along the border was identical to the attendance list read prior to departure from the Malaysian detention facilities.”
The matter was of interest to the US because the approximately 40,000 Burmese refugees that have resettled in Malaysia since 1995 came mainly from Malaysia.
Currently, Malaysia has not acceded to both the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol on Refugee, and does not officially recognise refugees, although the government allows the United Nations High Commissioner (UNHCR) to carry out registration and resettlement of refugees.
The report also criticised Rela for possessing too much power and noted allegations of their aggressive treatment towards refugees, including arresting and detaining refugees regardless of UNHCR documentation.
Under the 2005 Malaysian Securities Regulation, the volunteer corps allows members to arrest and detain suspected illegal immigrants, enter premises without a search warrant, bear firearms and demand documents.
First-hand accounts of extortion
The report also quoted first-hand accounts of trafficking and extortion.
One victim recounted how he received threats that he would be beaten, shot and killed if he was unable to pay up his ransom.
Another victim described that he was taken to Thailand-Malaysia border twice by Malaysian immigration officials and forced to pay RM3,000 for his release on both occasions.
“When we arrived at the Thai border, it was already dark. The Thai agents were already there when we arrived at the border river bank. The agents took us to Thailand by boat. The city we arrived in was [deleted]. We were there for about a week. The Thai agent gave us very bad meals, they fed us twice a day.
“They asked us to contact our friends and family who live in Kuala Lumpur. My friend sent RM1,500 to Hat Yai from Kuala Lumpur by [deleted] Bank. After they received the money, I was sent back to Kuala Lumpur. After a week, I was arrested again and sent to the Thai border again.’’
One was told that inability to pay ransom would result in him being sold to Thai agents to work in the sea as a fisherman without pay.
Many others noted that they were returned to Malaysia after their friends in Kuala Lumpur paid up their ransom.
Nevertheless, the committee credited the Malaysian government for allowing UNHCR to carry out refugee protection and assistance activities since 1975.
The report also revealed that on April 1, police chief Musa Hassan announced that the police has started investigations on allegations of extortion and human trafficking of Burmese refugees.
Recommendations for Malaysia
In its list of recommendations, the report suggested that relevant governments and organisations request for financial compensation from Burma’s military junta for costs incurred in caring for refugees.
Government, police and anti-corruption officials were also implored to address the trafficking selling and slavery of refugees, assist victims of trafficking within the country.
In addition, they were encouraged to consider alternatives to detention for refugees and asylum seekers, especially women and children.
Lastly, the report appealed for unhindered access for UNHCR officials to all facilities within the country where refugees are detained so that they may carry out registration work, and for the abolishment of Rela.
As of now, there are approximately 87,000 Burmese refugees in Malaysia who fled Burma because of ethnic and political persecution by the military junta.
Of these, only 57,000 are registered, with the majority being Chins (25,000) and Rohingya Muslims (16,000), and the remainders including ethnic Arakanese, Kachin, Karen, Shan and Mon.
However, despite the release of the scathing report, the authorities have not let up on their effort to round up refugees.
“The Malaysian authorities rounded up and detained some 300 migrants, including small children, during raids in the Imbi neighborhood of Kuala Lumpur late Wednesday night,” lamented advocacy officer Amy Alexander from California-based Chin Human Rights Organization.
Kennedy Lal Ram Lian, coordinator of the Chin Refugee Centre in Kuala Lumpur, said: “No one has been released - not even UNHCR card holders. More than 10 Chin detainees are UNHCR-recognised refugees awaiting resettlement to a third country. If they are deported to the border, they are at risk of being sold to traffickers.”
Government in denial
Meanwhile, opposition parliamentarian Lim has sought a meeting with government leaders to discuss the controversy.
“The Malaysian Parliamentary Caucus on Myanmar will convene a meeting on the (US Senate) report and seek a meeting with Najib and the new foreign minister, Anifah Aman.”
However, his parliamentary colleague Charles Santiago (right) is pessimistic that action would be taken.
“Instead of acting on these recommendations … ministers would categorically deny the report, rubbishing it as an attempt to discredit the government,” predicted the Klang MP from DAP.
After all, former home minister Syed Hamid Albar had denied such claims before.
“I take offence with the allegation because neither the Malaysian government nor its officials make money by selling people,” he was quoted to have said.
Santiago said he had repeatedly raised the issue in Parliament.
“They would sing the same rhetoric of having carried out an investigation on the immigration officers and found them to be squeaky clean.”
The MP nevertheless called on new Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein to open a new investigation on the matter.
US Senate ‘Trafficking of Burmese Migrants’ Report
Holds Malaysia and ASEAN Responsible and Demands Immediate Action
Press Statement by Member of Parliament Klang Charles Santiago in Klang on 24th April 2009
Richard Lugar the US Ranking Minority Member in a report entitled ‘Trafficking and Extortion of Burmese Migrants in Malaysia and Southern Thailand’ submitted to the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee on 3rd April, 2009 notes that Burmese migrants in Malaysia are victims of extortion and human trafficking in Malaysia and Southern Thailand.
The report suggests that Malaysian authorities are in cohorts with human traffickers in Southern Thailand:
“Burmese migrants are reportedly taken by Malaysian Government personnel from detention facilities to the Malaysia-Thailand border for deportation. Upon arrival at the Malaysia-Thailand border, human traffickers reportedly take possession of the migrants and issue ransom demands on an individual basis. Migrants state that freedom is possible only once money demands are met. Specific payment procedures are outlined, which reportedly include bank accounts in Kuala Lumpur to which money should be transferred. The committee was informed that on some occasions, the ”attendance” list reviewed by traffickers along the border was identical to the attendance list read prior to departure from the Malaysian detention facilities.
Migrants state that those unable to pay are turned over to human peddlers in Thailand, representing a variety of business interests ranging from fishing boats to brothels.
The committee has received numerous reports of sexual assaults against Burmese women by human traffickers along the border. One NGO official states that ”Most young women deported to the Thai border are sexually abused, even in front of their husbands, by the syndicates, since no one dares to intervene as they would be shot or stabbed to death in the jungle”
The Senate report further notes:
“Statements are continuing to come to the committee from Burmese and other migrants who were taken to the Thailand-Malaysia border and threatened with violence, or being handed over to human traffickers unless extortion demands were met. Details provided to the committee by Burmese refugees to the United States include names of persons to whom payments are allegedly made; payment locations in Malaysia and Thailand; bank account numbers to which extortion payments are deposited; locations along the Thailand-Malaysia border where migrants are reportedly taken by Malaysian officials; and the identification of persons allegedly involved in the trafficking of migrants and refugees”.
The report notes that Burmese refugees and migrants are whipped and tortured while in detention.
The Lugar report does not come as a shock even though it is upsetting.
Local television channel, NTV7, created an uproar in the country last year with their ‘Refugee for Sale’ documentary, outlining the plight of the Burmese who flee into Malaysia, fearing persecution from the military junta and end up being victims in lucrative sales deals between immigration officers and their clients at the Malaysia-Thailand border.
Those who cannot buy their freedom are sold off to the fishing boats or brothels. The US Senate report corroborates this fact.
It specifically states the nitty gritty details of the sales of helpless refugees, the need for affirmative action to stop these sales, the role of ASEAN and international communities in protecting refugees and the urgency for the ratification of the Refugees Convention, the 1967 Protocol on Refugees and include this issue in human rights dialogues within ASEAN member countries.
Instead of acting upon these recommendations, I am clear about the potential response from the Kuala Lumpur government - ministers would categorically deny the report, rubbishing it as an attempt to discredit the government.
Former Home Minister Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar denied claims that thousands of illegal foreigners held at detention centers were ”being sold off” to human trafficking syndicates. ‘I take offence with the allegation because neither the Malaysian Government nor its officials make money by selling people.’
Or they would sing the same rhetoric of having carried out an investigation on the immigration officers and found them to be squeaky clean.
I have repeatedly raised this issue in Parliament and the reply from the then Home Minister was predictable: no truth in the trafficking allegation.
The Ministry’s committee to investigate the NTV 7 documentary alleging government officials involvement in trafficking did not even interview the producer as part of its investigation. So much for a thorough and credible investigation.
Let’s get this straight. The refugees are not coming to Malaysia seeking better economic opportunities. They simply have no choice. They run into Malaysia, leaving behind families and children, to stay alive.
Their woes do not stop once they get to Malaysia. Here they are hunted down like animals by RELA, a bully group consisting of citizens who turn ad-hoc policemen.
Their refugee cards issued by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees or UNHCR is useless as Malaysia does not recognise their refugee status. Therefore the refugees are trapped in a situation where they cannot work and are constantly under the threat of being arrested by immigration and RELA officers.
But the government is only interested in business transactions with the military junta. Malaysian state oil company, Petronas, does business amounting to millions of US dollars with Burma.
ASEAN, on the other hand, pretend they are limousine liberals while in reality, turn a blind eye to the gross violations of human rights by the military. Instead, the leaders shake hands and exchange diplomatic niceties with the Burmese army officers during ASEAN meetings.
The 10-member bloc’s non-interference policy further cushions the Burmese military from the need to be accountable to the killings and disappearances of hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas, Karens, Chins and other minority clans.
I call upon the newly minted Home Minister Datuk Seri Hishamuddin Tun Hussein to open a new investigation on the matter and consider the 10 proposal of the Lugar report including implementation the country’s Anti-trafficking Law, ASEAN’s Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers and the immediate ratification of the UN 1967 Refugee Convention - with a view to protect and promote the rights of migrants and refugees in the country and region.
Member of Parliament, Klang
Vice Chairman of Selangor DAP