Malaysia-Myanmar detainee swap plan raises worries

AP News
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Posted: Oct 19, 2011 3:19 AM
Malaysia-Myanmar detainee swap plan raises worries

Malaysia's leading rights group criticized a government proposal to send some detainees from Myanmar home, saying Wednesday that their lives could be in danger in the military-dominated country.

Malaysian Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein announced this week that his country has agreed in principle to deport an unspecified number of about 1,000 Myanmarese citizens held at Malaysian detention centers for immigration offenses. Myanmar would send back Malaysian detainees under the deal.

The deal is meant to curb overcrowding at Malaysian detention facilities and would not affect Myanmarese detainees who are eligible for refugee protection, Hishammuddin said.

However, Malaysia's leading rights group Suaram said the proposal could still result in some Myanmarese citizens being forced to return to a country "where their life could be in danger."

"The Malaysian government is giving greater recognition to the undemocratic and tyrannical regime in this region," Suaram said in a statement.

There are at least 340,000 Myanmarese living in Malaysia, including more than 87,000 refugees registered by the U.N. refugee agency. Many belong to ethnic minorities that left home for fear of persecution by the army, forced labor and extra-judicial killings.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees' spokeswoman in Malaysia, Yante Ismail, said Wednesday that asylum-seekers should "not be deported to a country where their human rights might be at risk." She added that UNHCR currently has "good access" to people who want to apply for refugee protection in Malaysia.

Malaysia's Bar Council, the country's main grouping of lawyers, said it cautiously welcomed the plan because it would free Myanmarese detainees from overcrowded Malaysian centers that pose health risks. But lawyers want safeguards to ensure the detainees won't suffer "retributive or punitive action by their own government," the Bar Council said.

Malaysia's plan with Myanmar was announced after another people swap deal with Australia was scrapped earlier this month. Under that plan, Australia would have sent asylum seekers to Malaysia in return for Canberra resettling registered refugees from Kuala Lumpur, but the Australian High Court ruled it illegal.

Rights groups had criticized the Australian plan, arguing that asylum seekers are treated poorly in Malaysia, which has not signed the U.N. refugee treaty.