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UN, Malaysia Discuss Resettlement of Aceh Asylum Seekers


A high-ranking delegation from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees met with Malaysian authorities Friday to persuade the government not to deport more than 150 asylum seekers from Indonesia's conflict-ridden Aceh province. Erika Feller, of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, says the Malaysian government seems willing to discuss the Achenese refugees, including the possibility of resettling them in a third country.

The U.N. agency is concerned about the arrest last month of more than 200 people, most of whom are fleeing Indonesia's war-torn province, Aceh. They were arrested as they tried to enter the UNHCR compound in Kuala Lumpur, while seeking political asylum.

In addition, Malaysia has repatriated more than 70 Acehnese asylum seekers. Ms. Feller says she hopes the government will stop the deportations, until discussions are finished.

International law forbids deporting refugees against their will, but Malaysia is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, and does not make a distinction between refugees and illegal immigrants.

Cynthia Gabriel, executive director of the Malaysian human rights group, Voice of the Malaysian People, or SUARAM, says the government is under a lot of international pressure to change its stance.

"The whole high profileness of this case has actually made it difficult for the Malaysian government… as in how it would handle this situation given the fact the conflict in Aceh is something, which is so close to home," she said. Malaysian Foreign Minister Sayed Hamid Albar says detaining the refugees was necessary to prevent a flood of illegal immigrants. The relative wealth and stability of Malaysia attracts people from poorer and more violent Southeast Asian nations.

Ms. Gabriel says the problem of people fleeing the region's conflict zones will not go away. She says the 10-member nations of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, to which Malaysia belongs, needs to address the issue.

"The need to provide protection for conflict areas within our region is something that governments in ASEAN must really start addressing seriously," emphasized Ms. Gabriel. "And the Malaysian government is in a sense pressed to act… in a way, which would set a precedent for future conflict situations."

Aceh is located on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, which is separated from Malaysia only by the Straits of Malacca. The conflict in Aceh escalated last May, when the Indonesian military attacked separatist rebels in the province. Since then, more than 800 people have died in the fighting, and many more have fled.