Malaysia: crackdown against illegal migrants begins

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Rupert Colville to whom quoted text may be attributed at today's press briefing at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

As a twice-postponed crackdown in Malaysia against illegal migrants got underway today shortly after midnight, a mixed picture of the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers is emerging. UNHCR has been concerned that refugees and people of concern to us could get caught up in the crackdown. So far, we are encouraged by early reports showing that Malaysian law enforcers, especially RELA - a volunteer corps - and the police, have released people carrying UNHCR documents. However, some 29 persons with documentation have been arrested by immigration authorities and sent to immigration detention centres. We have quickly responded by sending staff to the centres to ensure the refugees are not deported.

Meanwhile, more than than 300 people crowded outside the UNHCR's office in Kuala Lumpur today (Tuesday) hoping to secure our assistance to remain in Malaysia. They were mainly from Myanmar, Cambodia and Indonesia's Aceh province, some having camped outside the UNHCR compound since the previous night. The office is trying to register asylum seekers on an urgent basis and counselling them accordingly.

Almost half a million enforcement personnel from immigration and a civil volunteer corps called Ikatan Relawan Rakyat or RELA and the police started moving in small groups across the country after midnight, to round up an estimated 400,000 illegal workers and their employers.

UNHCR today received and accepted an offer from RELA to accompany their raids against illegal migrants and do an immediate verification of those of concern to us.

UNHCR personnel are on 24-hour alert to protect refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia. An operations room has been set up with three hotlines staffed at all times. This is to ensure that the authorities can call us and check whether a certain individual is registered with UNHCR, or is of concern to the office. If so, they should then be released. Refugees and asylum seekers can also call in if they are facing problems.

In readiness for the crackdown, UNHCR put in place a number of informal arrangements with the authorities to prevent any negative effects on people of concern to us. Late last year, our representative in Malaysia addressed police chiefs from the country's 13 states on refugee registration, documentation and status determination. Training has also been given to senior RELA staff on recognising UNHCR documentation.

UNHCR has received assurances from the highest levels of the Malaysian government that people of concern to us will not be affected and the refugee agency's representative has urged all officials involved in the crackdown to respect people registered and documented by UNHCR and to refrain from taking any action against all groups of concern to the UN refugee agency. 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.