UNHCR urges Malaysia to protect refugees during crackdown
KUALA LUMPUR, Mar. 4 (UNHCR) - On the fourth day of Malaysia's crackdown on illegal migrants, the UN refugee agency urged the Malaysian government to continue demonstrating its strong humanitarian commitment and cooperation with the refugee agency, despite some conflicting media reports about the government's position. UNHCR strongly refuted charges that it had issued protection letters indiscriminately ahead of the crackdown.
On Thursday, Malaysia's Deputy Prime Minister was quoted by media as saying the government would take action against illegal migrants in the country even if they carried UNHCR documentation. Other press reports claimed UNHCR had been issuing refugee protection letters 'indiscriminately' ahead of the crackdown - a charge the refugee agency strongly denies.
"We have stringent procedures in place for registration, verification, interviewing and then determination of refugee status. This ensures that only people who require international protection by the international community are documented by UNHCR," the refugee agency's chief spokesman Ron Redmond told journalists at a regular press briefing in Geneva on Friday.
Redmond said that the refugee agency was aware - and concerned - that false documents are in circulation, but measures have already been taken to deal with the situation.
"We have appealed to law enforcement officials on the ground to contact us immediately to verify whether documents carried by asylum seekers are genuine and have set up two 24 hour hotlines in our operations room in Kuala Lumpur for that purpose," he said.
According to latest reports, more than a dozen people with UNHCR documentation - 11 Acehnese from Indonesia and 2 Rohingyas, an ethnic minority from Myanmar - have been arrested in the roundup and sent to immigration detention centres. UNHCR staff have been swiftly despatched to the centres to ensure the refugees are not deported and the agency said it hopes the authorities will release them shortly.
"We continue to appeal to all officials involved in the crackdown to respect people registered and documented by UNHCR and to refrain from taking any action against groups of concern to the UN refugee agency," said Redmond.
UNHCR said that earlier in the week it had been encouraged to see press reports quoting the Malaysian Home Minister saying foreigners in Malaysia who cannot return to their homeland because of political pressures should be allowed to remain in the country and be permitted to work. The minister reportedly emphasized that Malaysia should not allow them to become beggars, and that they could be absorbed into the foreign labour workforce.
"UNHCR would see this as a genuine gesture by the Malaysian Government to protect persons of concern to UNHCR," added Redmond.
There are some 35,000 people of concern to UNHCR in Malaysia including ethnic groups from Myanmar, people fleeing from Indonesia's Aceh province and other nationalities.
By Yante Ismail