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A boat carries Rohingya refugees off the coast of Langkawi, Malaysia, April 5, 2020. Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency handout via AP

(Bangkok) – Malaysian authorities should stop prosecuting Rohingya refugees for illegal entry and ensure that they are protected in accordance with international law, Human Rights Watch said today.

At least 40 ethnic Rohingya who were picked up from a boat that arrived in Malaysian waters more than three months ago have been sentenced to seven months in prison. Fourteen children from the boat were sent to “shelters” and may also face criminal charges. Twenty-seven of the thirty-one men convicted also face three strokes of the cane – a brutal punishment that constitutes torture under international human rights law. A court will hear their application to set aside the caning sentence on July 22.

“Malaysia is unlawfully treating as criminals people who fled atrocities in Myanmar,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “Rohingya arriving by boat should be considered as refugees who have a right to protection under international law.”

Human Rights Watch regards members of the stateless Rohingya minority who fled or were expelled from Myanmar in 2017 as refugees on a prima facie basis because of the broad-scale persecution they suffered from Myanmar authorities before and during the Myanmar military’s violent “clearance operations.”

At least a dozen boatloads of Rohingya refugees have left Bangladesh in recent months, where they have been living in camps in appalling conditions. While the Malaysian government appears to have temporarily ended the practice of pushing boatloads of desperate refugees back to sea, Rohingya who reach Malaysian waters are being detained and prosecuted for illegal entry into the country.

On June 27, 31 Rohingya men and 9 women pleaded guilty to charges of entering the country without a valid immigration pass or permit, an offense punishable under the Immigration Act by up to five years in prison, a fine of RM10,000 (US$2,347.00), and six lashes of the cane.

Imposing criminal penalties on refugees for illegal entry violates international law, which provides that those seeking refuge should not be penalized for immigration violations reasonably committed in the course of fleeing persecution.

The Malaysian authorities should stop prosecuting refugees for immigration violations and immediately withdraw the charges against these and other refugees facing prosecution for immigration offenses, Human Rights Watch said. The Malaysian government should also ensure that the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) is given access to these and all other Rohingya who have landed on Malaysia’s shores in recent months, hundreds of whom are being held in overcrowded and unsanitary immigration detention facilities that put them at higher risk of contracting Covid-19.

“Malaysia’s jailing of Rohingya refugees is bad enough, but subjecting them to the torture of caning shows little regard for their basic humanity,” Robertson said. “The Malaysian government should stop prosecuting refugees and afford them the protection to which they are entitled.”


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