The pact with Australia will highlight Malaysia's historically poor treatment of refugees.
KUALA LUMPUR: While the rest of Malaysia sleeps, a group of about 100 Christian refugees from Myanmar sings hymns and prays for a brighter future, in a makeshift church in the heart of Kuala Lumpur.
Divine intervention aside, there is hope that a recent migrant-swap deal with Australia will shine the spotlight on Malaysia’s historically poor treatment of refugees, and perhaps bring about some real change.
But once the two-hour midnight service ends, the members of the congregation turn their attention to the worldly problem of how to avoid arrest and harassment at the hands of security officials in a country that does not yet recognise asylum seekers.
“Getting stopped by police is very much the norm for us. Sometimes we are let off if the officer is kind, but mostly we’re not so lucky,” said 20-year-old Sarah Aye, who fled Myanmar three years ago and now leads the church service.
Sarah is just one of the 94,400 asylum seekers registered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Kuala Lumpur as of May this year. The agency estimates there are at least another 10,000 who are not registered.
Thousands attempt to enter Malaysia from Myanmar each year, either via sea or across the border from Thailand after fleeing by land.
Once documented, the refugees can either return home once conditions in their country improve, stay put in Malaysia or resettle in a third country, an option that can take years to process.
Malaysia is not a signatory of the UN Refugee Convention, and does not officially differentiate between asylum seekers and illegal migrants, who, if caught, stand to face whipping and jail under harsh immigration laws.
Denied the right to work or obtain education, refugees are forced to work illegally and take on any jobs they can find, often at the mercy of their employers and the authorities.
The harsh reality of the plight of refugees has long been criticised by rights groups, who have been calling on the government to formulate protection for them, but with little success.
However, the recent signing of a deal between Australia and Malaysia to swap refugees has put Malaysia’s treatment of asylum seekers under international scrutiny, breathing new life into calls for the government to ensure better protection.
The arrangement will see Australia sending over 800 mostly Middle Eastern undocumented migrants in exchange for 4,000 UN-certified refugees, mostly from Myanmar, over a period of four years.
The deal has drawn criticism from rights groups of both nations, but has also been welcomed as a change for Malaysia to show an improvement in its treatment of refugees.
Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said following the signing that while Malaysia was not a signatory to the UN convention, it was “committed to caring for asylum seekers, especially related to the aspect of humanity”.
Last month, the government announced a move to register and document illegal migrants, including refugees, in efforts to offer some form of protection and hopefully silence critics of its human rights record.
Talks are still under way, but rights groups have said the registration could signal a positive move.
“I think that any discussion that brings to light the issue of refugees, if it goes towards greater protection for refugees, is a good thing,” said Yante Ismail, a UNHCR spokeswoman here.
However, Tenaganita, a local rights group, doubted “diplomatic assurances” that the 800 refugees from Australia would be well treated, citing Malaysia’s poor track record.
Executive director Irene Fernandez said the deal, which swaps Middle Eastern migrants for mostly Christian Myanmar refugees, was “clouded with racism and secrecy”.
Australia was using Malaysia as a “dumping ground” for certain categories of asylum seeker, she told reporters after the deal was inked.
Loy, a social worker who declined to give her full name, said the exchange would make some things worse in Malaysia, claiming that Middle Eastern migrants made up the majority of those who get into trouble with the law.
But the increased international scrutiny could help women and children refugees in particular, who currently suffer rape and abuse, with nowhere to turn for treatment or redress, she said.
“These women fear arrest if they go to the authorities, or seek medical treatment. So they have no choice but to suffer in silence,” she said.
Nonetheless, Sarah and her fellow asylum seekers still hold out hope for a better future in Malaysia or another country.
“We ran away from persecution, from unfair treatment and hatred,” she told the German Press Agency dpa.
“We can only hope for things to change, because sometimes it feels like we travelled thousands of miles, only to face the same things here.”