Press Statement by Charles Santiago in Klang on Friday, 16th January 2009:

End the 'Refugee for Sale' cover-up 

The recent news report stating that the US Senate is investigating allegations of Malaysian officials extorting money from foreign migrants are linked to human trafficking comes as no surprise.

I had raised this issue in Parliament last year with regards to the Burmese refugees, together with human rights organisations like Tenaganita and the Migration Working Group. But the Home Minister Syed Hamid Albar had only glossed over the matter.

Local television channel NTV 7's "Refugee for Sale" programme helped to highlight the problem, nationwide.

But, responding in a typical fashion, Syed Hamid in a reply to my question in Parliament said that a special committee formed by the Immigration Department to investigate claims contained in the programme had found that immigration officials were not involved in trafficking of the Burmese or other refugees.

Either Syed Hamid is naive enough to buy the story dished out by the Immigration Department, which had set-up a special team to investigate its own officers. Or he is desperate to ensure Malaysia does not receive bad press worldwide.

The Home Minister, in his written reply, said that the Immigration Department would meet with NTV7, continue its investigations and punish errant officials if there is any truth to the claims made by the television station.

But no such meeting has taken place so far. It is obvious Syed Hamid is not at all bothered about the thousands of refugees in the country who live sandwiched between skyscrapers and overcrowded flats.

The refugees live in fear of being caught by the immigration authorities and being deported to their countries of origin, to face political persecution, despite holding UNHCR cards.

They are constantly harassed by Rela officers, a volunteer force, who are known to constantly be on the prowl for migrants and refugees. They even burn down make-shift homes of refugees in jungles.

If arrested, the migrants and asylum-seekers are lumped together in tiny immigration detention cells where flogging is the main form of punishment.

In short refugees live in a limbo in the country as Malaysia is yet to ratify the 1951 Refugee Convention. This means, the government does not need to officially recognise the refugees or the UNHCR documents that they carry.

It also, unfortunately, means that the government can shut a blind eye to allegations of abuse of power by immigration officers who make quick bucks extorting money from the refugees. Those who cannot pay off the extortionists are sold to brothels, fishing boats or as bonded labourers.

Meanwhile the refugees and migrants who are still in the country live in appalling conditions without proper sanitation facilities, housing, food and medicine. They and their children depend on handouts and the goodwill of others.

As such, I call upon the government to immediately ratify the United Nations Refugee Convention and provide refugees with the necessary protection as stated in the ASEAN Charter.

This is not the time to conceal information. Neither is it time to worry about Malaysia's reputation internationally.

Therefore, I urge the government to cooperate with the staff members from the US Senate foreign committee who have already travelled to Malaysia, Thailand and the Malaysia-Thailand borders for intelligence gathering.

* Charles Santiago, MP for Klang