Malaysia must make room for Rohingya refugees, lawyer group says

Migrants believed to be Rohingya rest inside a shelter after being rescued from boats, in Lhoksukon, Indonesia's Aceh Province May 11, 2015. — Reuters pic
Migrants believed to be Rohingya rest inside a shelter after being rescued from boats, in Lhoksukon, Indonesia's Aceh Province May 11, 2015. — Reuters pic

KUALA LUMPUR, May 13 ― Malaysia is bound by international law to help Rohingya refugees believed to be currently stranded on boats that are adrift off the country's waters, a legal group claimed today.

Lawyers for Liberty (LFL) argued that even if Malaysia does not recognise refugee status, it is a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, which means the country is obliged to make sure the women and children among the refugees are safe and well.

“Even though Malaysia is not a signatory to the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, Malaysia is still bound by international law not to forcibly deport refugees or cause them further harm as normally, those who were returned face severe persecution, including arrest, disappearance and torture,” said LFL Executive Director Eric Paulsen.

Over a thousand abandoned illegal immigrants comprising Bangladeshi nationals and ethnic Rohingya from Myanmar landed on Langkawi's shores recently.

News reports claim that there are up to 8,000 more aboard boats off Malaysia's waters which have been cut off by human traffickers and adrift for at least three days with no food or water on board.

A Malaysian official, however, reportedly said that the boats will be turned away if they are seaworthy.

Newswire AP quoted Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) first admiral Tan Kok Kwee as saying yesterday that they will provide provisions to the boats before turning them back, and only rescue those aboard sinking vessels.

Paulsen today warned that the MMEA's position is “extremely dangerous and irresponsible”, and likely to go against international laws.

He added that the persecution of the Rohingya by Myanmarese authorities is well documented, and to send them back is “ inhumane and cruel”.

While he acknowledged Malaysia's right to protect its borders from incursions, Paulsen urged the authorities to allow the refugees immediate access to the UNHCR to allow them to seek asylum and establish their refugee status.

“These boats carrying overcrowded refugees and migrants are typically  rickety wooden trawlers and hardly seaworthy. Turning or towing these boats away is as good as signing their death warrant as the occupants are normally starving, dehydrated, sickly and in dire need of immediate assistance.

“We urge the Malaysian government not to act hastily, keep our borders open and help rescue those stranded until more information can be ascertained as to why these people left Myanmar and Bangladesh including whether they are refugees who are entitled to international protection,” he said.