UNHCR expresses concern at impending crackdown on migrants in Malaysia
GENEVA, Feb. 22 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency today expressed concern at the impending crackdown on illegal migrants in Malaysia at the end of an extended amnesty on Feb. 28.
UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond said its staff members have been put on alert to protect refugees and asylum seekers in the south-east Asian country. There are some 47,000 people of concern to UNHCR in Malaysia, including ethnic groups from Myanmar, people fleeing from Indonesia's Aceh province, and other nationalities.
"We are concerned that thousands of refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia could be at risk of arrest, detention or deportation during the crackdown," Redmond said.
The Malaysian operation will be enforced by the authorities backed up by a half-million-strong civil volunteer force called RELA. However, UNHCR has received assurances from the highest levels of the Malaysian Government that people of concern to the agency will not be affected.
Redmond said UNHCR has put in place a number of informal arrangements both with the police and RELA to prevent people of concern to the agency being affected. To monitor the situation, UNHCR has set up an operations room in its Kuala Lumpur office with three hotline numbers manned by two staff members 24 hours a day.
"This is to ensure that the authorities can call in and check with us whether a certain individual is registered with UNHCR or, is of concern to the office. If so, they should then be released," he said.
Late last year all the police chiefs from Malaysia's 13 states were briefed by UNHCR's representative on refugee registration, documentation and status determination, and training has also been given to senior RELA staff on recognising UNHCR documentation.
UNHCR will also be increasing monitoring activities at immigration depots, and intensifying registration efforts.
In mid-December 2004, the refugee agency started sending mobile registration teams to camps in the forests on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur in an effort to provide documentation to hundreds of refugees and people of concern to the office. These people often live alongside illegal migrants, increasing their risk of being picked up. In November, UNHCR completed a mobile registration exercise on the island of Penang for refugees from the strife-torn Indonesian province of Aceh, which was later struck by the tsunami.
"We hope that these combined measures will go a long way to protecting refugees and people of concern to UNHCR during the crackdown. We have been encouraged recently by a constructive and strengthened relationship between UNHCR and the government," Redmond said.
Last week, for instance, in a much welcome act, the police force in Sepang district released into UNHCR custody 14 Acehnese registered with us who had been arrested. UNHCR is greatly encouraged that documentation was respected by law enforcers.