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Deteriorating Conditions for Burmese Refugees in Malaysia

Malaysia's treatment of thousands of Burmese refugees is bad and getting worse, Human Rights Watch charged in a new report released today.

After fleeing systematic discrimination, forced labor, and other abuses in Burma, ethnic Rohingya in Malaysia face a whole new set of abuses in Malaysia. These include beatings, extortion, and arbitrary detention. The refugees are forced to live in poverty and constant fear of expulsion from the country.

"Malaysia is treating the Rohingya in a shameful manner," said Joe Saunders, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "The country has treated refugees better in the past. It owes them better treatment in the future."

The 78-page report, "Living in Limbo: Burmese Rohingyas in Malaysia," details the treatment of Rohingya exiles in Malaysia. Denied legal recognition as refugees, Rohingya children are often not permitted to attend school, and many are denied health care. They are also at constant risk of arrest. Malaysian government officials detain and deport even those persons the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has recognized as refugees.

In Malaysia's immigration detention camps, out of the eye of domestic and international monitors, detainees have been robbed and beaten. Former detainees interviewed by Human Rights Watch claimed that food and medical care is grossly inadequate in some detention centers, and that some detainees had died as a result. Children have been detained with unrelated adults, separated from their families, and deported alone to the Thai border. From the moment of their arrest to their expulsion, the Rohingya are vulnerable to demands for bribes by government officials.

Malaysia's treatment of the Rohingya is part of a larger failure to protect refugees, no matter where they come from. Malaysia has no asylum system, and treats refugees as illegal immigrants. In the report, Human Rights Watch calls on donor nations and friends of Malaysia to press the government to recognize the rights of refugees, to stop all deportions of individuals who face persecution in their home countries, and to bring its practices into line with minimum standards governing treatment of refugees.

The Rohingyas, most of whom come from Arakan state in western Burma and have family roots there going back generations, are often denied full citizenship rights by the Burmese government. Unlike the bulk of Burma's population, the Rohingya are Muslim rather than Buddhist. Denial of citizenship means Rohingya are not free to travel outside or within the country, are refused government jobs, and have restricted educational opportunities. They also are more likely than other groups to be subjected to abuse such as forced labor and arbitrary confiscation of property. In the new report, Human Rights Watch calls on the Burmese government to repeal discriminatory laws, to reform its citizenship laws, and to recognize the Rohingya as full citizens.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has an office in Malaysia and has been able to secure protection for some Rohingya by registering them or granting them refugee status. UNHCR's efforts to date, however, have also fallen short. Out of nearly 1,600 applications by Rohingya for refugee status in 1999, only forty-three were granted, suggesting that UNHCR is systematically underestimating the dangers Rohingya face if forced back to Burma. UNHCR also has been unable to stem the abuses suffered by Rohingya in detention and, in many cases, their forced expulsion across the border.

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