Campaign Coordinator Dr Graham Thom took part in an Amnesty International fact-finding mission to Malaysia in July. The team visited a number of detention centres to witness first hand the conditions endured by those caught without legal refugee status in Malaysia.

With the Australian and Malaysian governments increasingly cooperating on issues such as people smuggling and trafficking, it is important not to forget those already in Malaysia in genuine need of protection.

Refugees in Malaysia - a snapshot

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) currently has 45,000 people "of concern" registered in Malaysia, and estimates that a further 40,000 to 50,000 are still waiting to be registered. The vast majority of those recognised as refugees, or waiting to be recognised, are ethnic minorities who have fled violence and persecution by the military regime in Burma.

In order to survive many of these refugees have little choice but to join the estimated 1.9 million "illegal" foreign workers currently in Malaysia. Working in dangerous, dirty jobs shunned by locals, they are open to exploitation and risk arrest by police and immigration officials.

UNHCR registration affords little protection in Malaysia, where the penalties for illegal entry are severe. Malaysia is not a signatory to the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention and refugee status is not officially recognised under Malaysian law. As a result, even those with an official UNHCR refugee card are still at risk of being arrested and detained.

People in breach of Malaysia’s immigration laws are detained, in very overcrowded centres, then sentenced to jail and often caned. They are then returned to detention and - if they can afford to pay various fines - returned home.

Conditions in detention centres

During our visit to Malaysian detention centres in July, Amnesty International got a first-hand view of the conditions endured by those caught without legal status in Malaysia.

Imagine you are one of 120 men detained in a building no bigger than a tennis court for 24 hours a day. It is over 30 degrees outside and even hotter inside. You get two small meals a day and the fish is so salty it burns your throat.

There is malnutrition, disease, fights and suicide attempts. If you cannot contact a family member to pay various fines this is where you will stay for months and months on end.

There are 22 detention centres in Malaysia - many of these each house over 1000 men, women and children. These are the conditions that many of these detainees endure.

Small hope in the face of slavery and corruption

With Prime Minister Najib Razak coming to power in April, Malaysia has introduced some positive new initiatives.

Until very recently Burmese nationals who were removed from Malaysia were often dumped across the border in Thailand, due to difficulties in returning people to Burma. In fact it had become clear that corrupt Malaysian Immigration officials were selling these individuals to Thai traffickers who, for a fee, would smuggle them back to Malaysia. If detainees couldn’t pay however, they were often sold either into sexual slavery, or as indebted slaves to work on fishing trawlers.

Amnesty International interviewed a number of people who had been sold to traffickers on the Thai border, but who were able to pay to be returned to Malaysia. These people reported witnessing those who could not pay being badly beaten and young women being taken away, never to be seen again.

Following a damning report by the US Department of State at the beginning of the year, Malaysian authorities have cracked down on this practice. With nowhere else to take Burmese nationals however, Malaysia invited the UNHCR back into the detention centres (after virtually locking the UN body out during the previous two years) to register those who were refugees and get them released.

The question must be asked however - what exactly are these refugees being released to? Once back on the streets they are still not entitled to work or to send their children to school. Corrupt police have been known to extort money from refugees, gangs target them knowing their crimes cannot be reported, while other refugees end up back in detention, their UNHCR status ignored.

What is Australia doing about this?

While the focus of Australia’s engagement with Malaysia has been on law enforcement, our Government has provided some funding to UNHCR to help with registration and operate some social programs for refugees, such as volunteer schools. Australia is also one of only a handful of countries that consistently resettles refugees out of Malaysia under our humanitarian program.

However, keeping in mind the plight of Burmese, Sri Lankan and other refugees in the region, Australia really must do more to ensure greater legal protection for those recognised in need.

If Australia’s aim is to ensure the UNHCR can quickly register refugees in Malaysia, while at the same time ensuring the vast majority of those recognised remains there, then it must engage with the Malaysian government to ensure these refugees are not subject to exploitation, arrest and detention. With a Malaysian government clearly more aware of its international obligations, not to mention reputation, Australia now has a unique opportunity to export not just its expertise in law enforcement and detection, but meaningful alternatives to the treatment of those genuinely in need of protection.