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Australia helps Malaysia put refugees in choke-hold

By Lance Lattig, Amnesty International’s Malaysia researcher

Australia’s ABC News recently went out on patrol with Malaysia’s Coast Guard, which has received US$1 million worth of boats from the Australian government as part of an immigration control program.

While Australia’s shores are thousands of kilometres from Malaysia, refugees fleeing persecution in countries like Afghanistan and Sri Lanka must pass through Malaysian waters when they head to Australia to seek asylum. Australia says its program with Malaysia is to prevent boatloads of people from making the dangerous sea journey south. Meanwhile back at home, Australia has been trying to push away its obligations to asylum seekers. In April, the Australian government suspended processing of all asylum claims by Afghans or Sri Lankans, most of whom had made it to Australia only after enduring the Malaysia part of their journey.

Unfortunately, as we discovered during our research, the Malaysian authorities have a poor record of mistreating migrants.

Amnesty International has documented how Malaysian authorities routinely detain migrants and refugees, extort money from them, put them on trial without regard for fair-trial standards. Even UN-recognized refugees are not safe. Malaysia, which has not ratified the UN Refugee Convention, does not recognize refugees. Amnesty International found refugees and migrants alike subjected to torture by caning.

In the ABC segment, the director of the Malaysian human rights group Tenaganita, Irene Fernandez, says that Australia is “complicit” in the abuses. “Australia is trying to push the problem away from itself,” she said.

We have been pushing the Malaysian government to improve its treatment of migrants and refugees, and in particular, to end the epidemic of caning that has subjected tens of thousands of people -- many of them migrants and asylum seekers -- to tremendous suffering. We have also been asking the governments of the entire South East Asian region, as well as Australia, to establish a regional response that helps protect the rights of migrants and asylum seekers.