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Listen to the refugees and find out who the real criminals are: PSHTC

Activists at a vigil in solidarity with the people on the boats, Penang 22 May 2015

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It is the unscrupulous governments and ruthless criminal syndicates who are the real criminals, not those on the boats, says the Penang Stop Human Trafficking Campaign.

We are encouraged by the Malaysian government’s decision to let the boats land, but remain very concerned about the boats still adrift.

We hope that a proactive and concerted search and rescue mission is being mounted, to locate the boats, provide immediate emergency medical help and provisions, and bring them to safety. There must be thousands of women, children and men on the boats who are badly malnourished and close to death. Urgent rescue is of paramount importance if we are not to let innocent people die.

We need to be very clear that the people on the boats are not the criminals. They are not the threat to national security.

It is the unscrupulous governments and ruthless criminal syndicates who are the real criminals. The syndicates include human traffickers, people smugglers and modern day slavers. They are the scourge of the region, having infiltrated and undermined governments and government agencies as well as intimidated and preyed on vulnerable communities in each of our nations. They have been murdering, raping, extorting, bribing, and buying and selling human beings with impunity for years. Can we at last say that it is time this stopped?

The women, children and men on the boats will all have stories to tell. Once they are brought to land and given all the medical and physical support they need, we need to listen to each of their stories, and record them, and compile the evidence which will be forthcoming of who recruited them, transported them, extorted more money from them, possibly tortured/raped/beat them, abandoned them … This is a chance to add to the information we already have, and should reinforce our complete determination to identify, hunt down, arrest and charge the criminals and their associates without fear or favour, wherever they are and whoever they might be.

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We have been very encouraged by the response of thousands of Malaysians who have pledged support for the humanitarian aid for the women, children and men. We need the Home Ministry/Immigration Department to set out how this humanitarian support is best channelled to the survivors of the boats, how we can best work together to make sure the relevant provisions and supplies are delivered and the people well cared for.

We also urge the Home Ministry to respect the Malaysian governments commitments to the Convention of the Rights of the Child, and make sure that all children (with their parents, where accompanied) are not held in detention camps or similar completely inappropriate detention venues.

Longer-term, there is lots to do. Let us never forget that this situation has arisen only because there was sudden action in Thailand to reveal the horror camps which had the effect of shutting down the ‘normal’ passages used by the human traffickers.

The fact is that this had been going on for years, common knowledge to our national and regional authorities, known because of the verbatim testimonies from survivors in the refugee communities (if we had been listening) and documented in hundreds upon hundreds of reports. But we chose to do nothing, allowing thousands of women, men and children to be killed, sold, ransomed, raped, and tortured, without any apparent action, until now.

So now at least we are talking about the horrors of human trafficking and affirming our commitment to do something. Let us make sure that we do. We have always had national plans relating to human trafficking, set out so beautifully on paper but which remain meaningless because the actions do not match the words. We need to activate these plans by setting up/extending designated teams to focus on human trafficking in Malaysia, with proper resourcing (human and financial) to make sure they can operate effectively.

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We need to work with vulnerable communities, notably the migrant and refugee communities in our country, because they have direct experience of the trafficking and can provide huge information if they are properly included and protected.

And the government, presumably through MAPO, needs to extend its inclusion of civil society and other groups who have considerable experience of the issues and can help provide solutions. Of course at Asean level, similar things need to happen across each country, with Asean cooperation allowing us to act cross-border, which is how the criminal syndicates of course are organised. With commitment and proper resourcing, we can do it.

And for our response to refugees/asylum seekers, we need to recognise, in line with international agreements, that there will always be people – women, men and/or children – who are facing such a traumatic and life-threatening situation in their homeland that they have no options but to seek refuge elsewhere.

We should sign the UN Convention on Refugees and the related Protocols.

Of course we need to take action against those governments persecuting minority populations or particular groups, and at last there seems some understanding that the Myanmar government must be called to account, for their long persecution of the Rohingyas and other ethnic groups.

But in the meantime we should stand with others around the world in saying that we will provide safe haven, and know that refugees will actually become a huge asset in our nation-building, since experience shows that they work hard and contribute positively in building a new life for themselves and especially their children.

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If, however, we do not give them any rights (as is the situation now – where we ‘allow’ them to stay but give them no rights, including no right to work), then we give them no protection, and this is an open invitation to human traffickers, modern day slavers and other criminals to flourish. Which is what has been happening up to now.

Penang Stop Human Trafficking Campaign
21 May 2015

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