Refugees from the Chinese Uighur minority were arrested this month by Malaysian authorities, with reports suggesting some have already been sent back to China where they face serious risk of persecution.
Presenter: Liam Cochrane
Speaker: Dr Graham Thom, refugee spokesman for Amnesty International Australia
THOM: China has been putting a lot of pressure on its neighbours to crackdown on Uighurs and we've seen this in Cambodia recently. Less than a year ago, a group of refugees in Cambodia were forcibly returned to China. We've also seen high profile Uighur journalists in Kazakhstan being sent back, following representations from China and unfortunately this seems to have been the case recently in Malaysia as well, very recently and it's a very disturbing trend. We're seeing a very harsh crackdown by China at the moment in the Uighur autonomous region in China and there was some very violent incidents just recently and major riots two years ago and that repression is now spreading I think.
COCHRANE: Does Amnesty International Australia have a clear picture of how many Uighurs have been deported from Malaysia?
THOM: Well unfortunately no, we're still trying to get the details and we know anywhere from 18 to 24 people were arrested, but it is not clear yet at all how many have been removed and we know that a number of governments are also trying to find out from the Malaysian authorities what's happened to those individuals. We know UNHCR, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is also trying to find out what's happened to these people, because they were registered with the UN there. A number of these people have family in Australia, and so they're of course beside themselves trying to find out what's happened to their sons. But the picture still is not very clear, so we're trying to establish exactly what has happened to these people.
COCHRANE: You mentioned sons. Are all the 18 to 24 people that we think have been arrested, are they all male?
THOM: That's what we understand at the moment, that they're all sort of young men, sort of from their 20s to their 30s. But again, the picture is very unclear.
COCHRANE: And what sort of circumstances do they face if they are indeed deported back to China?
THOM: Well unfortunately, the circumstances are very dire, particularly if we look at the people who've been arrested and detained over the last years. Serious allegations of torture, journalists who've been sentenced to 15 years in prison simply for talking to the Western media, and death sentences and a number of people have been executed, so we have grave concerns for their safety.
COCHRANE: Now, of course, this is an issue in itself, but it has extra importance I guess in light of Australia's refugee swap deal with Malaysia. What impact do you think this will have on the deal that's been made?
THOM: Well, I think it brings into question one of the core planks of that agreement or that arrangement I should say, it's not an agreement. It's only an arrangement and that is non-refoulement, that is the fundamental international law principle that you cannot send somebody back to a situation where they face torture or death and Australia takes that very seriously. And if anybody that Australia returns, ends up in a situation like this, it would be a serious breach of Australia's international law obligations. So I think given that both Australia and Malaysia have given very strong assurances that this won't happen and yet while the ink is still drying on the arrangement, there they are rounding up people who are registered with the UN and potentially sending them back to situations where they face torture or death.
COCHRANE: Because Malaysia is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, all the protection mechanisms focus on promises from the Malaysian government essentially and the Australian government has made those key to the arrangement as you described. What does this say about Malaysia's attitude towards refugee policy?
THOM: Well, I think we have to look at Malaysia's history and this is what Amnesty International has been saying all along. You have a country that considers these people essentially illegal immigrants. They have no legal status. The 90-odd thousand refugees in Malaysia have absolutely no legal status whatsoever, so they can be rounded up at anytime, they can be removed at anytime. People face caning in Malaysia for migration offences. They're dealing with something like in the order of one million to two million illegal migrant workers, unregistered migrants workers. So they really don't care if they can send two dozen Chinese Uighurs back to China to improve their relationship with the Chinese government, what's it to them. It's a drop in the ocean to them, so they have stated often and loudly that they are not a party to the Refugee Convention, they don't feel bound by these obligations and this is a clear indication of exactly what they will do when it's politically expedient to do so.
COCHRANE: Malaysia has said that it will treat the refugees who are sent from Australia, the asylum seekers sorry, I should say, that are sent from Australia for processing in Malaysia. The Malaysian government said it will treat these people differently and give them special protections. If they did end up being deported, would that breach any kind of international law or would it just be a failing on their promise?
THOM: Well, it does breach international law, non-refoulement is customary international law, so what they've done regardless of the fact that they haven't signed the Refugee Convention is still a breach of international law. It's a very serious breach by the Malaysian government if it is found that they have sent these people back to China. And so they are bound by that and they'll be bound by that for the 800 that we remove there as well. We're getting very mixed messages about what status these 800 will have. In some respects, they will have some sort of visa, which does make them different from other refugees, but in Malaysia, but in many other respects, we've been told they won't get special treatment, which means one year's, two years, three years they could be rounded up and anything could happen to them and that's our real fear, Australia entering into arrangements with countries like Malaysia.
COCHRANE: Just briefly Dr Thom, in light of this reported deportation of Chinese Uighurs from Malaysia, what should the Australian government be asking of the Malaysian government?
THOM: Well, I think obviously we've got a High Court challenge today to the arrangements, so we'll have to wait and see what happens after that. But I think the Australian government really does need to seek very strong assurances around what will happen to these people, but more importantly, pre-departure screening of people. Is it safe to send unaccompanied minors, pregnant women and particular ethnic groups back to Malaysia? That pre-departure screening has to be tightened and we have to have real faith that we're not sending people back who will ultimately face human rights violations.