Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – Tightly clutching her Sri Lankan identity cards, 41-year-old Mala struggled to hide her fear as she told her story.
In her shaking hand she held an eight-page appeal, written in a curvy Tamil script that detailed her family’s troubled life in Sri Lanka’s once war-ravaged north, caught between government forces and rebel Tamil groups, scared of the military and fearful of retribution.
The appeal was meant for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and was their last chance to secure UN recognition as refugees; a status that would give Mala and her three children a measure of stability in their lives.
“Every single day I feel scared,” Mala said through an interpreter at a community centre set up by fellow Tamils from Sri Lanka, requesting her real name be concealed.
Fleeing civil war
Many of the 4,300 Sri Lankan Tamils now in Malaysia lived for years under the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, which fought for more than a quarter of a century for an independent Tamil homeland and established its own quasi-government centred in the town of Kilinochchi.
As the civil war came to a brutal end in 2009, many civilians fled the country, but even in Malaysia their lives have been shadowed by the conflict.
The arrest and deportation this year of a number of men, some of whom had refugee cards, but were accused of being members of the Tigers has added to the unease.
“It’s like we were all going together towards the light and suddenly we were left behind in the dark,” said Ranjini Baskaran, a committee member at the Sri Lankan Tamils Refugee Organisation of Malaysia (STROM). “How can people live like that?”
STROM was set up four years ago to help the community communicate with the UNHCR, which is responsible for deciding refugee status in Malaysia. From its office in a rundown commercial area on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, staff provide education – refugees are not allowed to attend Malaysian schools – practical advice, and emotional support.
There have been a number of people sent back to their country of origin against our very express and strong concern this year.
Refugee advocates say at least 60 cases have been rejected in the past year, but STROM’s leaders argue that many of those refused are genuine. Applicants have just one chance to appeal and many pour their souls into the letter, desperate for a reprieve.
The UN refugee agency, which has 150,000 refugees on its books, mostly from Myanmar, said it’s doing all it can to assist those needing its protection.
“There have been a number of people sent back to their country of origin against our very express and strong concern this year,” Richard Towle, the UNHCR’s representative for Malaysia, told Al Jazeera.
“Those [concerns] have been shared and communicated to the government and they’re being discussed, but we have a line in the sand when it comes to refoulement or expulsion of refugees,” he said.
“That is a line we’re absolutely mandated to try to protect the best we can. And we do that, but in a place like Malaysia, we have no control over law enforcement officials.”
Three men accused of Tamil Tiger involvement were arrested in a late night raid in mid-May. Despite two of them having UN refugee cards and the third awaiting the outcome of his application, the agency had no opportunity to intervene.
They are now being held in Boosa, a detention centre run by Sri Lanka’s military intelligence, according to their Colombo-based lawyer.
Refoulement is the forcible return of a person recognised as a refugee and therefore at risk of persecution.
“Refoulement is a very serious violation,” Alice Nah, a research and teaching fellow at the University of York’s Centre for Applied Human Rights, wrote in an email.
“Non-refoulement is a principle of customary international law and as such, all states, whether or not they are party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, have an obligation to observe it.”
Malaysia, which is not a signatory to the Refugee Convention, says it was acting on reliable information, provided by intelligence services, including that of the US.
card, they didn’t have the information.”]
“The UN, when they gave them the [refugee] card, they didn’t have the information,” Deputy Home Minister Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar told Al Jazeera. “Some of this information, especially intelligence information is not widely known to a lot of people.”
Malaysia detained four more men suspected of being members of the LTTE in July. The inspector general of police noted that seven of the 14 Tiger suspects arrested since 2009 held refugee cards.
Although Sri Lanka’s civil war ended more than five years ago, in a final bloody battle on a small spit of land on the island’s northeastern coast, communal relations remain strained. Soldiers continue to patrol the former war zone, where most Tamils live, and the government has resisted United Nations’ efforts to investigate allegations of war crimes committed by both sides in the closing months of the conflict.
“The situation in Sri Lanka cannot be called normal,” said Jehan Perera, executive director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka in Colombo.
“There is a travel restriction on foreign citizens to the north and there is also high military deployment in the north and east. For Tamils who return, I have heard that some go through with no problem, but if there is any doubt about their past they will be detained at the airport and they can be questioned and arrested.”
Mala said she was told her request for refugee status had been rejected because of details she added in her interview that were not in her original application – details of sexual abuse by Sri Lankan soldiers.
“I didn’t feel comfortable before talking about what happened to me,” she said, alluding to the abuse she suffered. “But after counselling I felt I could.”
‘We can’t go back’
Not surprisingly, despite the difficulties of their life in Malaysia, many Tamils decide to stay even after they have been rejected as refugees.
Kris and his wife, they were also too fearful of retribution to use their real names, are living in hiding, terrified they will be deported.
They pray at a nearby Hindu temple that they won’t be forced to return to the country they fled from in 2010, after government agents accused them of working for the Tamil Tigers.
“When they told us our application had been rejected our hearts broke,” Kris said, trying to control his emotions. “We feared for our lives and that’s why we fled to Malaysia. We can’t go back. If we do, we will be going back to die. It will all be over. Our lives will be over.”
Al Jazeera’s Steve Chao contributed to this report