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Malaysia Faces Refugee Backlog After Australian Crackdown

Chow Kit in suburban Kuala Lumpur is a popular hangout for Afghans and Sri Lankans who have left their countries in search of greener pastures. Some attempt the voyage to Australia while others are left stranded in detention camps, 01 Jul 2010

Australia's crackdown on illegal immigration has resulted in a build-up of asylum seekers in detention camps in Malaysia and Indonesia. Refugee advocates are calling for a reassessment on how to care for migrants.

The streets of the Chow Kit, a suburb of Kuala Lumpur, were popular for human smugglers and migrants seeking illegal passage to Australia.

But according to human rights groups, diplomats and the imam of the local mosque, the number of smugglers and passengers has fallen dramatically since April. That is when the Australian government suspended the processing of visa applications for asylum seekers from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka.

The imam of the Chow Kit mosque says until Australia's policy changed, Afghans would arrive here with fake Pakistani identification, attracted by the area's cheap hotels, Afghan food shops and network of human smugglers.

Irene Fernandez, executive director of Tenaganita, a group that promotes the rights of women and refugees, agrees with his assessment.

She says an improved security situation since Sri Lanka's civil war ended and better living conditions in Afghanistan also contributed to the decrease in asylum seekers.

"I think that what has happened is that the traffickers and smugglers have kind of laid back for the moment until I think they find another way of getting the people out again, but the scramble to leave has definitely reduced," said Fernandez.

In addition, greater cooperation among Australia, Indonesia and Malaysia in fighting human smuggling has cut the number of boats trying to bring migrants into Australia illegally.

Fernadez says Australia's decision to suspend Afghan and Sri Lankan asylum claims meant people smugglers will likely turn to Europe and the United States as potential destinations for their human cargo.

But, she says, thousands of migrants have been left stranded in Malaysia and Indonesia. Some are in hiding, while others are stuck in camps and left to fend for themselves.

Udaya Perera, the deputy high commissioner of the Sri Lankan High Commission in Malaysia, says governments are working together to resolve the problem.

"They [migrants] spend around $12,000 U.S. in order to go to a Western country. They come for a better job and better living conditions and they have got caught in the trap of illegal syndicates which are handling human smuggling," said Perera. "As far as the Malaysian government is concerned they are extending their fullest cooperation and support to send them back, so we are in close association and we are cooperating with each other in order to send them back."

However, home is a distant option for thousands stuck in the camps, which former detainees describe as poor, dirty and lacking medical facilities. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees established most of the camps. Fernandez at Tenaganita says the UNHCR needs to rethink its strategy.

"I think the UNHCR has to review its whole policy and direction in establishing refugee camps," said Fernandez. "What I see is these refugee camps do not seem to have an end but continue to exist and where conditions become more and more severe as we see in the number of countries where such refugee camps exist."

The camps are largely scattered around the Malay peninsula and in the state of Sabah on Borneo island.

Australia halted processing of asylum applications for Afghan and Sri Lankan citizens because of improved conditions in those countries. The country's new prime minister, Julia Gillard, promises to review the immigration policy and has indicated there could be curbs on new migrants.