11,000 Burmese granted UN refugee status

Dec 3, 2009 (DVB), Refugee organisations have welcomed news that around 11,000 Burmese migrants in Malaysia have been granted refugee status by the UN, a move that significantly strengthens their security.

Although Malaysia does not officially recognize the UN High Commissioner for Refugees' status, a member of the Chin Refugee Committee (CRC), Palaung, said that being undocumented "is not easy".

"Any time you can be arrested or they [police] can ask for money, but now that they are holding UNHCR cards, the UNHCR can help them in case of detention or arrest," he said.

The Chin, the most populous Burmese ethnic group living in Malaysia, is the largest group to have been given status. Refugees from Mon and Kachin states were also included.

Despite Malaysia being a popular destination for Burmese refugees, with thousands attracted by promises of employment, the Malaysian authorities have come in for criticism of late for their treatment of refugees and migrants.

Earlier this year, scandals engulfed Malaysian officials and their Thai counterparts after it was found that refugees and migrants had been sold by immigration officials to traffickers along the border.

The United States, in its annual Trafficking in Persons report for 2009, however downgraded Malaysia to a 'Tier 3' country.

According to Palaung, the latest registration drive was conducted at mobile registration points located in areas far from the UNHCR office, making it easier for refugees who previous had problems accessing the location.

The status is also a help for refugees seeking work. According to CRC, employers are often more likely to offer work to foreigners if they have some form of documentation.

Aid groups have warned of a possible exodus of Burmese refugees fleeing the country in the run-up to elections next year. Thailand will likely shoulder the majority of those fleeing to camps along its border with Burma.

Reporting by Joseph Allchin

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