KUALA LUMPUR When Myanmar refugee Joseph Peng Ceu fled political persecution in his home country in 2001, he envisaged a bright future in Malaysia. Instead, he became part of Malaysia's nearly 100,000-strong refugee population with no rights to jobs and education.
As a stateless person who is not recognised by the Malaysian authorities, Peng cannot get a proper job and lives hand-to-mouth with his wife and two-year-old son in a tiny flat shared with 10 other people.
The prospect of arrest and deportation is a constant worry for the 36-year-old ethnic Chin refugee and he has little hope for the future.
"When my child grows up, he has to live in terror just like me," Peng, who works illegally as an electrician, told Reuters as he taught his son to write. "If I could, I would go home."
The plight of refugees such as Peng has thrown the spotlight on Malaysia's treatment of asylum seekers, as the Southeast Asian country prepares to receive the first batch of refugees under a swap deal with Australia aimed at helping both sides to tackle a rising influx of refugees.
Under the agreement, Malaysia will receive 800 unprocessed asylum seekers from Australia which in return will accept 4,000 refugees whose claims have been approved for resettlement.
The deal, as well as Malaysia's treatment of asylum seekers, has drawn sharp criticism from rights groups who say that the country's refusal to ratify the United Nations refugee convention robs refugees of their basic rights.
The U.N. refugees convention is a global treaty that spells out the rights and obligations between host countries and refugees. The U.N. says that 148 states or three-quarters of the world's countries are signatories to the convention.
Critics say Malaysia's refusal to ratify the U.N. convention has led to mistreatment including caning and denial of basic rights for the 93,600 refugees in the country, which come from Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan.
"They do not have any access to legal processes, so they endure horrific conditions with intense human rights violations," said Irene Fernandez from Malaysian rights group Tenaganita.
RISING TIDE OF REFUGEES
Many refugees seek jobs illegally and often fall prey to unscrupulous employers. Others resort to begging on the streets.
Under the deal with Australia, the 800 refugees sent to Malaysia will be granted access to jobs, education and healthcare. But rights groups say this is not enough when the much larger population of refugees already in the country do not have these basic rights.
"This exchange of refugees does not facilitate a process whereby Malaysia moves towards greater protection of refugees and this is not acceptable, it's like trading in human beings," said Fernandez.
Malaysia's government has defended the deal, saying it has limited means to help the growing number of refugees.
"Malaysia is not signatory to the U.N. refugee convention because it cannot afford to give access to education, work, shelter and food to the refugees," Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said when signing the arrangement with Australia.
Yante Ismail, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees' (UNHCR) spokesperson in Kuala Lumpur, said the agency's documentation is increasingly being recognised by Malaysian law enforcement officials. Last year 25,600 refugees in Malaysia were registered with the UNHCR to seek asylum.
"It is not an easy environment for refugees (in Malaysia)," Yante said. "However there are some positive elements. One important fact is that refugees can move freely. They are not in camps and are able to be empowered to find their own ways of coping and rebuild their lives with dignity."
The influx is set to increase, especially in developing countries. Asia now hosts 38 percent of the world's 10.55 million asylum seekers, whose numbers have swelled in recent years partly because of conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to UNHCR.
"Their biggest hope is that more help can be given to refugees who are already in Malaysia," said Simon Sang from the Alliance for Chin Refugees, a group that provides aid to members of the community.