Rowan Callick From: The Australian May 10, 2011
THE 4000 refugees likely to come to Australia under the Malaysian solution are mainly Christians.
There are 93,000 asylum-seekers and proven refugees in Malaysia, most of them living in the Klang Valley in and around the capital Kuala Lumpur.
They are not being held in camps, but are living in poor, largely rented, accommodation "in the community" while they await either assessment by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees or, if already assessed as refugees, await placement in another country.
The UNHCR is helping them with training, and to get work, so that they can look after themselves as far as possible. They are free within Malaysia's borders, but mostly lack travel documents to go beyond.
Malaysia's high commissioner to Canberra, Salman Ahmad, said on Sunday that although his country was not a signatory to the UN refugee convention refugees in Malaysia were treated with respect and dignity. He said that while the 800 asylum-seekers to be sent from Australia under the plan would not be placed in detention they would be contactable and monitored by authorities.
Small numbers of asylum-seekers or refugees in Malaysia have come from Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and Sri Lanka, almost all by plane.
But 92 per cent of them are from Burma. Most of these people have come overland through Thailand with the assistance of people-smugglers.
About 73,000 of them have already been assessed by the UNHCR as refugees, and are awaiting resettlement in third countries, with the alternatives being to return voluntarily to a Burma now run by a civilian government or to become "locally integrated" -- a less likely outcome.
They have escaped Burma for a range of reasons, including constant warfare between the army and hill tribes, and the persecution of regime opponents. They come from many areas of Burmese society, however, the biggest groups represented are Christian Chin (about 36,000), Muslim Rohingya (20,400), Burmese Muslims (9400), Mon (3900) and Kachin (3400).
Amnesty International Australia's refugee spokesman Graham Thom said yesterday that though they lived in the community they had no legal status so were frequently rounded up as part of regular clampdowns on the two million illegal foreign workers believed to be in Malaysia, alongside the two million legally in the country.
That was how asylum-seekers came to be in detention centres, where conditions had been condemned by Amnesty.
"Refugees are copping it every day. Once they are arrested, their documents are often disregarded or destroyed, and they are charged with being illegal and are caned," Mr Thom said.
"Refugee families live in fear that their children may go to the shops and not come back" -- and it was hard for the already stretched UNHCR to find them.