Monday, October 4, 2010

UNHCR Affiliates Accused of Refugee Corruption

UNHCR Affiliates Accused of Refugee Corruption
By KO HTWE Saturday, October 2, 2010

KUALA LUMPUR—Several Burmese organizations in Malaysia, which are affiliated with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), are selling resettlement registrations for profit to refugees, according to victims of the scheme and witnesses in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur.

The groups in question include the Chin Refugee Committee (CRC), the National League for Democracy (Liberated Area) Malaysia (NLDLA), the Burma Refugee Organization (BRO) and the Arakan Refugees Relief Committee (ARRC). But sources say other affiliated groups, including several ethnic representatives, are also involved.

Earlier this year, the UNHCR began delegating the authority for issuing resettlement registration documents to Burmese groups based in Malaysia. Refugees who are recommended for resettlement by the agencies are then interviewed by the UNHCR. The exception is the CRC, which was first authorized to register its people for resettlement in 2001.

The UNHCR began issuing registration documents for Burmese refugees on Aug. 17 in a process that ended on Sept. 19. According to the sources, some 6,000 refugees from Burma were recommended for resettlement during that period.

Speaking to The Irrawaddy, Ko Maung, a member of both the BRO and NLDLA, said, “I became a member of two organizations doing business with the Burmese refugees. I have paid a so-called 'membership fee' of 60 Malaysian Ringgit (US $20) per month to each group for one year now. But when the UNHCR began registering refugees, I was overlooked for others who had paid more money.

“I’ve no document to live in Malaysia,” he added. “I am frustrated that the UNHCR passed responsibility [for the registration process] to other organizations and that it is not involved directly with the refugees.”

Possession of UNHCR registration documents are highly prized among Burmese refugees in Malaysia because it offers them some protection if they are arrested by the Malaysian authorities. Registered refugees also qualify for half-price medical services at several local hospitals.

Fees to register with brokers such the CRC, the BRO and the NLDLA have gone up since the process began from 310 Ringgit ($100) to 700 Ringgit ($225), say sources. In each case, the Burmese groups then promise to put the paying refugees on a priority list with the UN, the sources said.

“I heard that the BRO was charging 500 Ringgit ($160) to register a refugee while the NLDLA was charging 700 Ringgit,” said Sunny, a Burmese migrant worker who came to Malaysia with a work permit. “I cannot decide whether I should register or not.”

Burmese refugees who are registered for resettlement by the UNHCR frequently wait for up to one year or longer for resettlement toa third country.

“In general, many Burmese migrants think that the Malaysian-based NLDLA is organizing a boycott for the upcoming election, but what they are really doing is cheating money out of people who want refugee registration.” said Kyaw Htoo Aung, a social worker who works with illegal Burmese migrants. “I cannot stand it. I have interviewed victims of the scheme and posted their testimonies on my blog.”

Both the NLDLA and the ARRC refuted the accusations when contacted by The Irrawaddy. The BRO said it has no spokesperson who can comment on the matter.

Ethnic Burman and Arakanese people were not recognized as “refugees” by the UN until this year. About 50 Arakanese protested on June 6 outside the UNHCR office in Malaysia, saying the UN was discriminating between different Burmese ethnic groups and religious affiliations.

Yan Naing Tun, the editor of Thuriya, a bi-monthly journal based in Kuala Lumpur, said, “The UNHCR give first priority to Chins and Rohingyas. They discriminate against other ethnicities. It has become very difficult for real refugees to get registered.

“As far as I can remember, the UNHCR employed a Chin translator when it started the operation,” he added. “However, they did not employ translators for other ethnicities, including Burmese.”

The UNHCR did not respond to the accusations when contacted by The Irrawaddy.

The CRC said that in 2001 several Chin leaders urged the UNHCR to grant refugee registration to their people and that the process began that same year. 

It said that between June 2009 and March 2010 some 10,000 to 15,000 Chin refugees were registered with the UNHCR.

Speaking to The Irrawaddy on Friday, Kennedy Lal Ram Lian, the coordinator of CRC, said, “There are so many registered [Chin] refugees that we cannot monitor them all. We had to form a subcommittee.”

He added that the CRC did not collect money for registration from the refugees, only a fee for transportation, phone calls and expenses—about 30 Ringgit ($10) per person.

However, according to several of those who consider themselves victims of the scheme, a person who wants to get refugee status through the CRC must pay at least 3,500 Ringgit ($1,133) to cover the entire process. They told The Irrawaddy that others pay the minimum fee, which is 1,200 Ringgit ($390), just to register with the CRC.

“The CRC told me it was worth paying the full [3,500 Ringgit] fee because it would guarantee me a place on the resettlement list,” said Ko Aung, who spoke on condition of a pseudonym.

The Malaysian government has cooperated with the UNHCR on humanitarian grounds since 1975 even though Malaysia has not signed the “UN Convention Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees.” Burmese refugees have since been sent to third countries including the United States, Canada, Australia, France, New Zealand, Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Norway.

According to the Malaysia UNHCR website at the end of August, there are some 90,300 refugees and asylum-seekers registered with their office; of which about 83,000, or 90 percent, are from Burma. Of that number, about 38,500 are Chins, 19,700 are Rohingyas, 7,400 are Burmese Muslims, 3,900 are Mon, and 3,500 are Kachins or from other smaller ethnic minorities.

© Irrawaddy Publishing Group.

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