Yangon (AsiaNews) – Hundreds of Burmese are being held in remote Malaysian refugee centres, locked up and handcuffed in prison-like conditions. Relatives and friends are forced to be body searched and registered; unscrupulous merchants sell goods at exorbitant prices; women are abused, humiliated and forced to strip in front of guards. All of the refugees had to flee their homeland to escape abuses by the ruling military junta.
Without papers the refugees are treated like criminals, packed in rooms a hundred at a time without any basic human rights.
One source working for an NGO that is in touch with the refugees spoke to AsiaNews about one such centre, describing its horrors.
“It took us about four hours to reach there,” said the source, who preferred to remain anonymous for security reasons. “It is situated in a very remote area where public transport is not made available. [. . . ] I gave my handset and identity card to the officers whereas my friends gave their passport and handset.”
This was followed by a body check by a female officer, and a statement to a counter officer that included “the name, sex and also body number” of the person visitors wanted to see.
During the “30 minutes” of waiting the source saw episodes indicative of the type of atmosphere that prevails in the centre.
“I saw one of the female detainees walking with a handcuff and that really caught my attention. I was very surprise and upset to see what was going on. I was just thinking to myself, why handcuff a female? How can she escape? Even if she escapes how could she get away because the detention centre is so isolated and far? It doesn't make sense. She is not a criminal. Does she deserve this treatment just because she doesn't have a proper document?
Talking to camp inmate is also prison-like. “We got a chance to speak to the detainees through a phone and see them through a glass,” the source said. “Each one is given an allocated time of approximately 15 minutes.”
“If we wanted to get something for them we had to buy it from the centre’s canteen. I was very surprised by the price of the things: it is so expensive. But we have no choice because we can't bring in goods from outside.”
“When I commented about the price the shop owner said she had to pay RM 5000 for her monthly rent. That is why she has to charge more.”
A man in the canteen offered to sell airplane tickets, at a huge price that varied according to a prisoner’s ethnic background, Burmese or Vietnamese.
“Laughing while quoting” fares, the profiteer said that he was “so experienced that he could tell me how long an inmate had been detained. That shows how much he seems to know things in the centre; he seems to know everyone, from the officers to the detainees.”
“When I told him that prices were too high he told to keep quiet, otherwise prisoners might pays for my remarks.”
The stories refugees had to tell depict a world with harsh rules. Women are forced to “undress and squat”; are “humiliated and embarrassed”; forced to go topless like the men because not allowed to cover themselves.
“There are about 100 people to a room and not everyone has a blanket. Is that how we treat a person” who has fled his or her country without papers?
Lastly, the source launches an appeal on behalf of the refugees, that they not be forgotten: “For those of you out there doing your best to bring light at the end of the tunnel; please continue doing that. I believe the little light that we shine can make a difference. For those of you who are unable to do that, have courage. I believe it would make a big difference in others’ life.” (DS)