Refugees in Malaysia: boat people in the making?

This article first appeared in Arena Magazine, issue 106, July 2010.

Riding the monorail high above the streets of Kuala Lumpur, Matthew (not his real name), a Myanmarese refugee, looks around him and at every stop starts biting his lip. At any stop he could be picked up by the police, immigration officers or RELA, the volunteer auxiliary police, who patrol the streets and conduct occasional raids in areas where they suspect refugees live and work.

“Sometimes they wait at the bottom of the stairs of the station. That way we cannot escape. They ask for identification and money, sometimes the mobile phone. They just take it and often let us go, less paper work for them,” he tells me.

Matthew’s experience is just one of the thousands of refugees working illegally to make a living in Malaysia. As Malaysia is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and Protocol, it does not recognise refugees. As such, refugees like Matthew are not allowed to work, and nor do they receive any help from the government.

Despite the absence of any official recognition of the refugee problem in Malaysia, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) maintains a busy office in Kuala Lumpur. Refugees are encouraged to register and have their cases evaluated.

If they are deemed genuine refugees they receive a UNHCR card, which is supposed to grant them some protection from the police and detention. The track record is patchy at best.

Refugees are either reliant on the UNHCR or other refugee service handouts or piece together a living from the vast and often unscrupulous world of undocumented work. Police intimidation, immigration raids and, in some cases, detention are common—even from those under the protection of the UNHCR.

The working conditions often amount to bonded slavery—or worse—as refugees don’t speak Malay or English and are dependent on their employer for their food and lodging.

Things, however, are changing. In February this year both the home minister and foreign minister stated that the government had been asked by trade unions to investigate allowing refugees to work. While Home Ministry Secretary General Mahmood Adam acknowledged that refugees should be able to earn a living doing odd jobs. A more thorough review is underway. However, the government is known more for its spin than for its commitment to deliver on these matters.

Many refugees become ensnared in the politics of the cheap and exploitable labour of undocumented workers, which has helped to drive Malaysia’s economy. They are tolerated when they are most needed and expelled and mistreated when the economy slows down.

Unlike most undocumented labourers, however, refugees have nowhere to return to when the economy takes a dive such as that caused by the global financial crisis. They simply lose their job and subsequently their housing, their access to food and soon their mind.

To add to the problems, an increasing incidence of mental health issues have emerged as a central concern for organisations working with refugees. Only a few individuals and organisations have the specialist skills required to care for such refugees and these are already badly overstretched. It is not only the trauma of displacement from their homeland, but increasingly the displacement and disconnect they feel in Malaysia, that worries mental health experts. The worse their situation gets the more desperate they get.

Amongst the worst hit is a group of Afghan refugees living in Kuala Lumpur. They desperately want to reach the West and thus a secure and stable life for themselves and their children.

The Australian government has declared Afghanistan safe and seeks to stop refugees from being able to claim asylum here on this basis. However, most Afghan refugees are Hazara peoples, who have been subjected to systematic discrimination in Afghanistan since the nineteenth century. Many are also embroiled in blood feuds which affect their families over generations.

Some also collaborated with the Soviets during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan prompting them to flee to neighbouring Iran after the fall of the Soviet regime. The group of refugees in Malaysia have lived in exile in Iran for the past 20 years. Last year they were forced to flee Iran after Iranian president Ahmadinejad singled them out as being a drain on society and began to crack down on illegal immigrants. Now they are in a similar situation trapped in Malaysia with neither a home to return to nor a safe place to go to.

Mailwagadum, a Sri Lankan refugee living in Malaysia said he is awaiting a decision from the UNHCR about settlement in a third country —hopefully in the West.

‘I have a wife and child. It is for their welfare I am doing this. I must do it the legal way’ said Mailwagadum. ‘It is too dangerous and too expensive. If I drown, what of my family then?’ He had recently thought about it though, he admitted.

Another refugee, Abdul, was more frank. He had already tried to board a container ship bound for Australia. At the last minute, though, the people smugglers had run off with the AUD$8,000 he had paid to transport him. These investments are often equivalent to life savings, in many cases of their entire village or family and thus big investments. But so is the prize.

When you ask refugees why they want to come to Australia, they give three main reasons. Firstly, they say they want to be free: free to go to the shops, the city, the countryside, wherever, without fearing police harassment.

Secondly they say they want to work and become a part of the community, which they cannot do in a country that does not legally acknowledge them at all.

Thirdly, and clearly the most important reason that they give, they say they want to give their children a better future than the lives they were living. Above all they say they want their children to attend schools, so that they can learn and become all the things they themselves can no longer be, such as doctors or lawyers. For some, it is just to be able to read and write.

Hearing these reasons, it is striking how similar their values are to average Australians.

What’s clear from stories such as Matthew, Mailwagadum and Abdul is that there is a growing refugee crisis in Southeast Asia. Numbers continue to rise as more and more people flee the Myanmar government, as well as trickle in from other conflict areas. With the Australian government in the midst of a debate about refugees, what is clear is that Australia can no longer go it alone when it comes to refugees.

The problem is regional in scale and requires a regional response. This may include pressure on Malaysia to rethink policies that are endangering refugee lives and the security of its neighbours. How likely this will be in an election year remains to be seen.

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