Myanmar refugees and Rela

Myanmar refugees and Rela

AI, Aliran: NO to ‘Rela department’


Two human rights watchdogs have come out strongly against attempts by the government to make the People Volunteer Corps (Rela) into a full fledged enforcement department soon.

Amnestry International Malaysia (AI) executive director Josef Roy Benedict said such a move would further legitimise and strengthen the powers of Rela members to arbitrarily arrest, search and detain individuals.

“This will worsen the current climate of arbitrary law enforcement in Malaysia and will increase the abuse of power and human rights violations,” he said in a statement today.

At present, Benedict said Rela already has wide and discretionary powers where they can stop any person, enter any premises and make arrests without any warrants.

Such powers also do not come with an oversight mechanism and thus was subject to abuse, he said.

“Therefore, these powers should not be extended to a volunteer civilian body with poorly trained, part time members,” he added.

Similarly, Penang-based civil rights group Aliran said sanctioning the activities of Rela was a setback for Malaysia as a member of the UN Human Rights Council as the body had gained international infamy.

Don’t condone abuses

In a statement yesterday, Aliran said the government should instead consider limiting Rela to a disaster relief work.

“Aliran contends that legitimising Rela to become a permanent feature of our security apparatus is superfluous and tantamount to condoning the continuing violations of human rights in the country, regardless of the status of the victims,” they said.

On June 26, Home Affairs Ministry parliamentary secretary Abdul Rahman Ibrahim announced that Rela was pushing for a separate law to govern its operations with greater authority.

The body currently operates as a division under the Home Affairs Ministry and is governed by the Essential (Ikatan Relawan Rakyat) Regulations 1972, an emergency period legislation.

It is primarily tasked with weeding out undocumented migrants and have been frequently blamed for human rights abuses during their operations.

Once recognised as a full fledged government department, Rahman said Rela would no longer need to depend on the ministry for allocations.

Rahman had told Parliament that Rela had 350,000 active members and 664 officers and administration heads. It is in the midst of recruiting another 3,000 members.

Global rights watchdog: Disband Rela

An international human rights watchdog said the Malaysian government should disband Rela (People’s Volunteer Corps) on grounds of repeated complaints of abuse and unlawful behaviour towards migrant workers. 
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a statement today that it has documented many instances of such abuse this year alone including:

• (April 5) Volunteers arrested some 20 Burmese refugees and asylum seekers at a market in Kuala Lumpur, of whom at least five had been officially recognised as refugees by the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).


• (late March) Eight members of a team removed belongings worth RM1,800 from one dwelling and were detained on robbery charges

• (March 8) An officer detained an Indian immigrant with identification certifying his legal status. It took four days for the worker’s employer to obtain his release from a detention camp for illegal immigrants.

• (March 6 and 7) Volunteers who were to have handed out flyers related to court orders helped a developer evict 50 families and tear down houses in Kampung Berembang. They operated bulldozers and were also alleged to have used excessive force.

• (March 2) 10 volunteers raided a factory in Jenjarom, Selangor, injuring two Nepalese workers and detaining eight others.

• (January 28) Rela raided in Kampung Sungai Merab, Denkil, resulting in the arbitrary arrest of 14 persons recognised as refugees by UNHCR.

“Rela volunteers (who are) fully uniformed, armed and unaccompanied by police or immigration officers, often employ unnecessary force and illegal policing practices,” the HRW statement said.

It also listed Rela’s modus operandi in, for example, breaking into migrant lodgings in the middle of the night without warrants and brutalising the occupants and extorting money from them.

“(They also) confiscate cell phones, clothing, jewelry, and household goods, before handcuffing migrants and transporting them to detention camps for ‘illegal immigrants’,” it stated.

Distinction ignored

The organisation said Rela members have failed to distinguish or have deliberately ignored the distinction between undocumented immigrants, and refugees and asylum seekers.

“At other times, volunteers have refused to recognise a worker’s legitimate immigration status … volunteers have been known to deliberately destroy identification cards proving a worker’s right to be in Malaysia.

“Rela’s behavior has embarrassed the government into announcing some minor reforms but tinkering with raiding procedures or upgrading training will not get to the fundamental issue, which is that Rela should be disbanded.”

Almost half a million volunteers are authorised to help maintain public order, primarily through the arrest of undocumented migrant workers.

According to the home ministry, the role of Rela is “to help maintain security in the country and the well being of the people” as the eyes and ears of the government since 1972.

However, in 2005, the corps was given more power to stop ‘any person suspected as terrorist, undesirable person, illegal immigrant or an occupier’.

“The government has set up what’s little more than a vigilante force to target foreigners. Given Rela’s repeated abuses, it should be disbanded right away,” HRW added.

Why M’sia refuses to ink refugee pact

Why Malaysia has not signed the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees 1951 and the Convention relating to the Stateless Persons 1961 despite being a United Nations member for more than 50 years?
The answer: Malaysians come first.


According to Foreign Ministry parliamentary secretary Ahmad Shabery Cheek, refugees will take jobs away from Malaysians.

“Malaysia is an escape door to people from our neighbouring countries like the Philippines, Myanmar (Burma) and Thailand. And we all know that there are internal problems in these countries.

“Given this, if we open our doors and recognise these people as refugees, we need to give them jobs and it is not possible when our people are also struggling to gain employment,” he said.

“We need to think Malaysians first. And this is the main reason why the government is not ready to sign the conventions.”

However, he told Parliament today that the government had adopted a policy where refugees are given “temporary shelter” to those who need it.

“As a caring country, we have worked together with United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR)to refugees who wish to go back to their home countries.

“For those who don’t want to, we provide temporary shelter in countries recognised by UNHCR,” said Ahmad Shabery.

28,668 refugees in Malaysia

Ahmad Shabery (BN-Kemaman) was responding to a query from M Kulasegaran (DAP-Ipoh Barat) who asked the foreign minister to state the number of refugees in Malaysia according to their country of origin and what are the assistance and protection given to them.

“Why are refugees often mistaken for illegal immigrants and put behind bars? Althought the government says that refugees benefit in certain ways in our system, why do we still have refugees who don’t have access to legal employment, education and healthcare?” asked Kulasegaran.

Ahmad Shabery that as of May, there were some 28,668 refugees from countries like Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Nepal, China, Somalia, Sudan, Sri Lanka and Burma in Malaysia.

In July, the government launched a major operation to arrest and detain illegal immigrants from Indonesia, Thailand, Burma, Bangladesh, Nepal and Philippines.

Some 100,000 refugees were also picked in the exercise leading to several organisations urging the government to stop the crackdown on refugees.

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