Asylum seekers have little to cling to

Baradan Kuppusamy

Over a dozen sweaty and angry Rohingya men gathered in a small and grubby fifth-floor room of a walk-up flat in Pudu, a suburb outside the Malaysian capital famous for its wet market, thriving counterfeit trade and scores of small Chinese-owned printing presses. One can see the brown marble towers of Times Square, the latest luxury shopping centre that many Rohingya men, as construction workers, had helped build a year ago. The frayed newspaper cuttings tell the story of how over 10,000 Rohingyas fled their home in western Arakan province in Burma 20 years ago to escape persecution by the Burmese military. The story also tells of their bitter experiences in Malaysia. The letters constitute correspondence between individual Rohingyas and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and Western embassies and speak of their futile bid to win recognition of refugee status. Almost universally, the applications for refugee status are rejected because, as the letters spread on the floor state, the Rohingyas have “failed to meet the conditions for refugee status as stated in the 1951 UN Convention of Refugees”.

Today, the atmosphere is tense and the Rohingyas look frightened. They all believe that a major operation to round up Rohingyas is underway following an arson attack by three Rohingya brothers on the Burmese embassy on April 5. The brothers had burnt the rented embassy building in anger because they were unhappy that it had refused to endorse several documents that would have persuaded the UNHCR to give them refugee status. The attack happened as Burma’s Minister for Home Affairs Col Tin Hlaing was meeting with Bangladeshi leaders in Dhaka. They discussed the fate of about 200,000 Rohingyas in UNHCR-administered refugee camps in the Cox’s Bazaar-Teknaf-Bandarban areas of Bangladesh bordering western Burma. This month’s arson attacks have focused attention on the plight of some 10,000 Rohingya immigrants who have no legal status and make do with poorly paid jobs. They have no passports or identification documents issued by a state that give legal status, except UNHCR papers that says they are “persons of concern to the UNHCR”. Other UNHRC papers just say the holder is “registered with the UNHCR.” The Rohingyas say they want to return to Arakan but the Burmese junta does not recognise them as citizens and refuses to accept them if deported from Malaysia or nei-ghbouring Thailand. The Rangoon junta sees the Rohingyas as illegal immigrants although Muslims have lived in Arakan state since the 12th century. Almost no third country wants them because they are considered economic migrants. “Th-eir situation is extremely precarious and difficult because Myanmar does not recognise them and they are rejected by third countries,” said UNHCR officer Ruth Evans.

Rights activists say a lasting solution is unlikely in the short term because of major shortcomings from the UNHCR, Malaysia, Burma and third countries. The Malaysian government, while prepared to receive fleeing refugees for the short term, is unwilling to she-lter and resettle them as it had done for Filipino Muslims fleeing military operations in sou-thern Mindanao in the 1970s or Vietnamese ‘boat people’. At the core of the issue is Malaysia’s refusal to ratify the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees that grants displaced people rights, protection and shelter and asylum. Activists say that Malaysia’s practice of deporting Rohingyas to where they fled from flouts the international principle of non-refoulement, which holds that this should not happen to persons seeking asylum. — IPS