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Myanmar migrants stuck in crowded centers

Inmates at the holding facilities in Malaysia complain of poor

September 20, 2009|Julia Zappei

SEPANG, MALAYSIA — A growing number of immigrants from Myanmar are ending up stuck, often for months, in crowded detention centers in Malaysia designed to hold people for only a few weeks.

Almost 2,800 Myanmar citizens were detained at camps in July, more than double the 1,200 in January, partly because of a crackdown on human trafficking, a step-up in raids and a slow economy that leaves the migrants without jobs. People from Myanmar, a desperately poor country with a military junta, are now the biggest group among the 7,000 foreigners at detention centers in Malaysia.

At a center near Kuala Lumpur International Airport, about 120 men sat in neat rows on the floor. Many had their legs drawn to their chests, and all were barefoot. There was not enough space and not enough bedding.

"There is no soap for taking a shower, nothing. They don't give us anything," said Kyaw Zin Lin, 23, who said he fled to avoid being drafted into the Myanmar army. "Every day we eat the food just to survive. . . . They treat us like animals."

One reason for the rise in detainees is a crackdown on trafficking. A report published in April by the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations cited firsthand accounts of Myanmar migrants who said immigration officers turned them over to traffickers.

That practice has all but stopped, Myanmar community leaders in Malaysia say.

Now, though, the Myanmar migrants are trapped in detention. The Myanmar Embassy often takes six months to register its citizens for deportation and charges them $180, much more than neighboring Indonesia. By contrast, detainees from other countries are typically deported within a week.

Calls to the Myanmar Embassy were repeatedly put on hold and then went unanswered.

About half the Myanmar migrants -- those fleeing persecution -- may qualify for United Nations refugee status, but that process takes up to four months. The others are economic migrants. About 140,000 Myanmar citizens work in Malaysia, but foreign workers who are laid off lose the right to stay.

Some Myanmar migrants have spent more than six months in crowded, dirty detention centers. One man, whose brother was in detention for four months, said he would rather be sold to traffickers from whom he could buy his freedom.

"I prefer to be trafficked," said the man, who would only be identified by his nickname, Ryan, to protect his relatives in Myanmar. "I don't mind paying 2,000 ringgit [$570]."

Five of Malaysia's 13 detention centers are overcrowded; four of the five have large Myanmar populations, according to the Immigration Department. Journalists from The Associated Press accompanied the human rights group Amnesty International on a rare visit recently to three detention centers just south of Kuala Lumpur, the capital and the country's biggest city.

At the Lenggeng Detention Depot, 1,400 people are crammed into dormitories meant for 1,200. Of them about 300 are from Myanmar.

Hundreds of men jostle each other for room in the bare dormitories. One sleeps on a stone ledge in a bathroom. Each dormitory is fenced by wire mesh and barbed wire, giving detainees just a few feet of space for walking.

"The detention centers we saw fell short of international standards in many respects, as the immigration authorities themselves acknowledge," said Michael Bochenek of Amnesty International. "It's a facility of such size that infectious diseases are communicated readily."

Saw Pho Tun, a refugee community leader, said some immigration officers have singled out Myanmar detainees for rough treatment, beating them and not allowing them medical assistance. Immigration officials deny beating detainees and say everyone has access to medical care.

On July 1, detainees at another center flung their food trays and damaged some of the mesh fence. Immigration officials blamed the riot on frustration about having to stay so long, but detainees say they rioted because they were afraid of abuse.

Most of the blocks have now been shut for repairs, so more than 1,000 detainees -- including 700 from Myanmar -- were transferred to other already crowded centers.

Abdul Rahman Othman, the director general of the Immigration Department, said he was taking steps to prevent his officers from being "entangled" in trafficking syndicates. He said officers would be rotated to different posts every three years and have a buddy system to supervise each other.

"Ninety-nine percent of us in immigration are good people," he said, denying the problem is widespread.

Police arrested five officers on trafficking allegations last month. They say their investigations revealed immigration officials took Myanmar immigrants to the Thai border and sold them for up to $170 to traffickers. The traffickers then told the migrants to pay $570 for their freedom, or they would be forced to work in the fishing industry, police said.

Myanmar community leaders said women who failed to pay were sold into prostitution.

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Zappei writes for the Associated Press.

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