Coming to Malaysia – protection, responsibility and labour

Wang Kelian camp used by people traffickers in Perlis Malaysia

Wang Kelian camp used by people traffickers in Perlis Malaysia

The so-called ‘boat people crisis’ in the Andaman Sea has been brewing for a long while. Economic migrants and refugees attempt the perilous sea crossing to reach safety and better economic prospects. This is the story of human migration: fleeing the undesirable and the dangerous while moving towards a better future.

The recent events have brought to the world’s immediate attention the plight of desperate people willing to pay sums far beyond their means to engage the services of people smugglers in order to flee from their homelands. This is part of broader global movements of people to industrializing and industrialized countries in search of a better life; be it in Southeast Asia, across the Mediterranean or across the Mexico-US border.

The current crisis in Southeast Asia derives from three key factors, two pushing migrants from their places of origin, and one pulling migrants into Malaysia. Many of the boats intercepted in the Andaman Sea were carrying Bangladeshis and Rohingya en route to Malaysia. For many Bangladeshis, poverty at home and the better earning potential in Malaysia leads them to seek out a smuggler. Among these Bangladeshis are those who have worked in Malaysia previously alongside new recruits who have been enlisted by friends or agencies. Rohingya, on the other hand, are fleeing increased violence, systemic discrimination and statelessness in Myanmar. This has been the case since the late 1970s and Rohingya have been steadily flowing into Malaysia for decades. Increased numbers of Rohingya arrive in Malaysia after eruptions of violence, such as in the aftermath of ethnic riots in Rakhine state in Myanmar in 2012. Rohingya fleeing to Malaysia gain a sense of protection as well as opportunities for paid work that will allow them to sustain themselves and their families.

The Malaysian economy, with its vibrant manufacturing and construction industries, represents a significant pull factor for regional migrants and refugees. Indeed, these sectors are reliant on the cheap labor which illegal works provide. The majority of migrants and refugees in Malaysia find work in so-called 3D jobs: dirty, dangerous and demeaning. The local labor force is unwilling to perform this work and society could not function without them today.

This makes work rights and the regularization of existing undocumented migrant and refugee workers an important task for regional labor destination countries, like Malaysia. The Malaysian government has no means of recording the numbers of undocumented people currently living and working in the country with estimates ranging from two to five million, in addition to the 2.2 million migrant workers residing in the country legally. Regularizing the status of refugees and providing them with work rights would provide the economy with a more stable workforce (less immigration raids), the government more taxes (no longer lost to the informal sector) and the workers themselves more agency and protection in the workplace (currently most have no insurance).

Protection is indeed the first step in reframing the debate. We ought to talk of protection spaces for those persecuted and in immediate need of safe passage and safety. Malaysia is a first protection space for many refugees and with international help basic service provision for refugees can be significantly bolstered. At present the Malaysian government does not recognize refugees and does not provide them with any services.

A protection space need not shoulder the current crisis alone and protection is an ethical and moral responsibility shared by all countries. To do this the global UNHCR resettlement program needs to be strengthened and more industrialized/rich countries urged to participate, especially within Asia. Japan, for instance, only began resettling refugees in 2010 and was the first Asian country to do so. In times of crisis wealthy countries often fulfill their responsibilities by committing monetary assistance. Qatar has pledged $50 million to assist Indonesia to house the recent influx of Rohingya refugees. This is helpful, but is usually expended on short-term projects, not used to address long-term issues. Beyond sending money, wealthy Gulf nations could offer sanctuary, especially for Muslim refugees, without joining the UN refugee convention – a document many countries are reluctant to sign and some signatories are trying to circumvent (most notably Australia).

Indeed, Australia has set a dangerous precedent recently in paying Cambodia to accept refugees intercepted on their way to Australia. This is reminiscent of a proposal to create a market-driven refugee trading system, first mooted 21 years ago. An (illicit) market is already engaged in moving people across borders and economic market rhetoric should not be deployed as a redistribution tool for those people who some states deem ‘undesirable’.

The complexity of these human migration crises is ethical, economic and political. The root causes are complex and mired in local, regional and global political stalemates. Big issues, such as rising inequality and poverty, propel people to seek better futures elsewhere. People persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion must be afforded sanctuary and protection. These are realities and responsibilities shared in a global sense. Naturally, addressing the underlying systemic issues takes more time, effort and political will, but if governments fail to act the ‘crisis’ will continue simmering until the next time it boils over.

Pushed offshore, the ‘boat people’ crisis demands regional response

In recent days, some 2000 refugees and migrants from Bangladesh and Myanmar have come ashore in Aceh, Indonesia, and Langkawi, across the Strait of Malacca in Malaysia. Thousands more are feared stranded on the high seas.

A maritime crisis has been brewing in the waters of the Bay of Bengal for some years now, but it was rarely reported. All eyes have been on the “boat people” arriving on Australia’s doorstep and more recently on those making it to Europe across the Mediterranean.

Read on over at the Conversation…

Public anthropology

In recent weeks Savageminds drew attention to the need for anthropology to be more engaging and public, with posts by Erin Taylor and Alex Golub. Taylor called on anthropologists to do more in spreading the word(s) of fellow anthropologists already working hard to make anthropology more accessible. Little gestures, perhaps a retweet, comment or facebook link gets the word out a little more. She also called on university departments to value interventions beyond the book, book chapter and journal article. Sadly universities largely administer us according to metrics that value income and reputational standing as attested by journals and book presses and not outreach, engagement and community work. But this is where Golub’s suggestions hit home in startling fashion: He recommends Amazon reviews and Wikipedia entries. The former ties our expertise to our (rarely significant) commercial value in publishing. We can spread reviews and insights about academic work much faster and to a wider audience. Goodreads is another good review website with a wide readership. Wikipedia, on the other hand, allows academics a space to share their accumulated knowledge, reference and cite as well as create knowledge in a free (well sort of) and shared platform. This is where education makes its mark, for Wikipedia is often the point of departure for many student (and academic) essays, a first stop to discovery and the more we can share on that first step of learning and discovery, perhaps we can entice more people into the depths of further research in libraries, open access repositories etc.

I think that apart from broadening our outreach and sharing each others’ work we must also continue to and become better at inserting ourselves more in general debates and discussions. Too often ‘commentators’, ‘opinion writers’ and ‘experts’ on TV panels, radio shows and news papers are made up of people with little or no expertise in the areas they comment on. Anthropologists with real experiences and expertise can and should intervene, provide comment and discuss matters relating to our expertise – and it is vast!

One major impediment to a more visible public anthropology has been alluded to last week by Joshua Rothman in the New Yorker where he dissects the recent commentary by journalist Nicholas Kristof calling for more interventions by academics. Rothman notes that increasingly professors write for small audiences of their peers in order to attain and remain in an academic position. The golden age of being a professor is over with faculties shrinking and competition over remaining jobs and fellowships lead to a skewed arms race where university metrices dictate impact and our standing much more than outreach and public intellectualism. These have become bonuses, something to pursue ‘on the side’ apart from the income generating teaching work and reputation increasing research work. All this points to a need for redress in what we believe an academic to be and what role s/he should play. It’s easy to call for more interventions, as I just did, but with fewer academics around with fewer time to devote to public interventions we must also address the systemic gutting, ‘rationalisation’ and weakening of most tertiary systems at present.

At the next AAS (Australian Anthropological Society) meeting in Melbourne in December we will have a plenary on the role of anthropology in the media, our communities (where we work – both in the field and the university) and towards our public(s).
Confirmed speakers:  Nancy Sheper-Hughes; Tess Lea and Greg Downey

Lessons About Refugees From an Australian Immigration Crisis

Refugee from Myanmar with child, living in Malaysia

This article first appeared in the Huffington Post 18. August 2014.

I am an anthropologist, I live in Australia and I work with refugees in Malaysia. None of these attributes in and of themselves make me an expert on what is happening along the U.S. border at present. However, as anthropologists we try to understand issues from other people’s perspectives and we try to make sense of the world around us. When it comes to the current crisis of children refugees you don’t have to be an anthropologist to want to dig deeper and understand what is driving the large numbers of children to flee to the U.S., you just have to be human.

Living in Australia adds another dimension to wanting to get to the bottom of this. In the lead-up to the 2001 federal elections in Australia the now infamous ‘children overboard affair’ shocked the Australian people. The government announced that the Australian navy had intercepted a boat carrying 223 asylum seekers. This was not unusual, but several government ministers declared that the asylum seekers had threatened to throw and indeed had thrown children overboard. A subsequent inquiry found this assertion to be untrue. In any case, as increasing numbers of children and especially unaccompanied minors arrived in Australian waters the government decided to implement ever-harsher deterrents for asylum seekers reaching Australian shores. The deterrents were implemented ostensibly to stop people drowning on the treacherous sea-journey, but also to assure the electorate that the Australian government was in command of Australian maritime borders.

The protection of the inside, the nation-state and its people, from the outside, usually seen as dangerous and unknown entities, is an age-old preoccupation of governments. To show strength is to lock down the border and let in only those people who are of benefit to the nation: skilled migrants, who will help maintain or construct the nation; tourists who will aid the economy by spending money; and foreign investors, who will employ locals.

As I opened the morning papers in Hawaii recently I was faced with America’s ‘children overboard’ stories — those of children showing up in unprecedented numbers at the Mexico-U.S. border. Over 50.000 children had been detained in just the past nine months. Driving the exodus is what we regard as a basic right for children in the West, safety — to feel and be safe in one’s community, without persecution and harassment. These children are seeking asylum, which should not become a political tool for electioneering, as it has done so often.

As anthropologists we like to get behind the headlines and locate the context of a given event or world issue and examine the issue on a micro level. I have just finished filming for the massive open online course Worl101x: The anthropology of current world issues on the edX platform in which we discuss borders, the nation and refugees in some detail. My own work in Malaysia focuses on how refugees make a home for themselves in a place that does not afford them legal recognition.

The stories I have encountered in Malaysia share crucial elements with the asylum seekers of the ‘children overboard’ affair in Australia and those of the children detained along the U.S.-Mexico border as reported by anthropologists and journalists in recent months. At the core of these stories there are push and pull factors that impact the decisions to leave one’s home and seek out a place for a new life.

The push factors are often violence, conflict and a sense of insecurity, be it personal or for an entire community, ethnicity or other group identity. When life becomes unbearable and too hard it becomes a matter of survival and instinct to seek an escape route to a better place. And here the pull factors come in. The United States of America, Australia and Europe stand out as safe and prosperous places to live, work and make a life for oneself. It is our success in creating stable and peaceful societies that attract others to them. Both push and pull factors are more complex and depend on individual trajectories and anthropology has a wealth of stories to tell about why some people make the journey and others do not.

Anthropology connects stories and makes clearer the reasoning and logic behind decisions that may at first seem counterintuitive. Why would anyone let their children travel thousands of miles, often with strangers or alone, to an unknown country — the dangers seem overwhelming. Especially as in both cases, Australia and the U.S., these children have to traverse dangerous transit countries and inhospitable natural environments (the sea and desert respectively).

This makes it all the more important for everyone, that’s you and me, to be more aware of how our neighbors are living and faring in an ever more interconnected world. The answers can only start with a concerted regional effort that provides aid to our neighbors, whether across borders or within them, and provides new hope for people who often have only the hope of a new life elsewhere to hang on to.

I am a migrant myself, but one of those lucky ones, who can migrate for work with visas that allow me to legally stay in Australia and access healthcare, education and work. Indeed, I can travel freely around the world and have just returned from a trip around the Americas. When I arrived at the U.S. border at Honolulu International Airport I was quizzed by the official about my intentions, the places I was staying at and how much money I had with me. In fact, at each destination I had to present my credentials, my passport, for a government official to look it over and allow me into their country. I am very privileged to have a passport that allows me to freely move across the world. Many people are not that lucky.

social/cultural anthropology MOOC in production for edX

I have been busy traveling around the globe to interview several eminent fellow anthropologists about their work and anthropological journeys as well as follow some University of Queensland anthropologists into their fieldsites in places like Cuba, Toowoomba, the Atacama desert in Chile and Northern Queensland and my own fieldwork sites in Malaysia. The idea is to show students what anthropologists do and how they do it – you can look forward to discussions on consumption in Cuba, refugees in Malaysia, water in a Chilean desert and indigeneity in Australia.

We’re working hard to put it all together for our September 1st start date on edX, so please check out our website for more info by clicking HERE. Or follow us on facebook or connect via twitter. Please spread the word.