Malaysia: Desperate Burmese give insight into refugee misery
Putrajaya, the seat of Malaysia’s federal government, was built for more than US$8 billion as a fantasy project of the country’s former PM and strongman Mohamed Mahathir.
It was carved out of rubber plantation-covered hills in the 1990s and turned into a planned city for public servants.
Many buildings were designed to look like palaces — with an eclectic mix of styles from around the world — giving the city the look of a sprawling, but spookily empty, theme park.
However, this emptiness was shattered for a while on August 23. About 10,000 desperate refugees who had fled the brutal military dictatorship in Burma converged on the immigration department offices because they feared imminent mass deportation.
The Malaysian NGO Tenaganita, which protects and promotes the rights of women, migrants and refugees, said on August 24 that the refugees (who had United Nations cards recognising their refugee status) were told they needed to be registered at Putrajaya imigration office.
Thousands of people — including the elderly, ill, young children, mothers with babies — stood for hours in cramped conditions. They waited only to be told they had to come back the next day because the immigration department could register a maximum of only 2500 people a day.
Those who managed to get registered under the government’s system became even more alarmed when they were then issued with a slip which said: “Purpose: Return to Home Country.”
The government responded by mobilising a notorious volunteer militia that has been used to control refugees and migrant workers. Witnesses said that the militia turned up armed with sticks and abused and threatened the terrified refugees.
It was just another day in the nightmare that is life for the nearly 100,000 refugees stuck in Malaysia. The country has not signed UN conventions on refugee rights yet the Australian government is trying to deport 800 asylum seekers there.
The incident represented just a tiny bit of the misery that is the life of the 43.7 million people now estimated by the United Nations to be displaced worldwide.
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