Press Statement by Charles Santiago in Klang on Friday, 24th April 2009:
US Senate 'Trafficking of Burmese Migrants' report holds Malaysia and ASEAN responsible and demands immediate action
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.
* Charles Santiago, Selangor DAP Vice Chairman & MP for Klang