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Project June 29, 2010

Malaysia: Refugees from Burma at Risk

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In 2009, the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations published a report confirming that the Malaysian government has been involved in the selling of Burmese refugees to human traffickers. Karen Zusman spent last year recording the stories of refugees who were victimized in this way, culminating in a feature multi-media documentary.

Despite holding official UN cards most of the refugees Karen interviewed were arrested in raids conducted by an officially-sanctioned citizen group: The Malaysian RELA. The RELA arrest and detain refugees with impunity, often breaking down doors, cutting gates with chain saws, exhorting money, and in some cases, physically abusing and raping the refugees. These raids are the first step in a process that can include arrest, sentencing, caning, and indefinite periods of detention in dangerously unhygienic camps where the refugees report that they are denied medical care and even access to clean drinking water at times.

Last year the U.S. State Department Human Trafficking Report rated Malaysia's record as among the worst. This year they praised the Malaysian government's efforts to combat trafficking. However, new reports allege that immigration officials currently demand money from the detained refugees - rather than selling them to traffickers - in exchange for their freedom. And the RELA raids continue with increased frequency.

As a result, hundreds of refugee children from Burma are locked away in community shelters, afraid to go outside for fear of arrest, with no hope of ever attending school or obtaining legal work. This leaves them highly vulnerable to their being trafficked in the future.

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