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.

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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.

 

Gender segregation and the campus

This article first appeared in the Australian newspaper, Wednesday 7. August 2013Image

I am currently revising an article about my work in Malaysia with what can be described as fundamentalist and secular Muslims. One of the debates I am engaging is what role the researcher, in this case an ethnographer, plays in describing, analysing and writing about confrontations between universalisms and worldviews. Last Wednesday I took some time off from revising this paper to attend an iftar (breaking of fast) event I had been invited to by a student of mine.

The university’s Muslim Student Association had organized a big event and invited non-Muslims to share in the experience of breaking fast together in a park on the university’s campus. Mats were laid out on the grass to allow people to sit down. The event included the breaking of the fast (with water and a date or snack), a prayer and the communal dinner.

Upon arrival I was directed to sit down on the left-hand side of two clearly separated seating areas and told that this was the men’s section, whilst women had to be seated in the corresponding women’s section. As a staff member at a function of a university union affiliated club I was aware of my position in what would come next. If I quietly sat down in the designated male section, I could be seen (as could the university) to be condoning gender segregation. If I began questioning the practice and decided to leave or sit elsewhere I could be causing offence.

In my fieldwork in Malaysia I often came across gender segregated events and as part of my research work I would often question the reasons behind certain practices and document the reasons people gave for them. More importantly, during Ramadan the breaking of fast and communal meal was generally a communal experience in which families came together and men and women were not segregated. The prayers, especially if held at a mosque would be separated, but most people break their fast at home or in public places with only a short prayer.

Here, I was not in my field; rather, I was there as both a participant and member of an Australian university with my own views about the position of religion on the campus, so I engaged the first and second and third person who directed me to sit in the men’s section by asking them who had decided upon the seating arrangements (the organizing committee) and on what basis gender segregation was practiced here. A few students engaged me as I sat down on the sidelines of the event. I valued the interaction and discussion I had with these students as it afforded me an opportunity to question and respond with my views on Islamic traditions and the history of gender segregation.

The event raises important issues beyond the immediate seating arrangement relating to both gender equity and religious tolerance and discrimination. Some of these issues have been raised by a similar incident at Melbourne University in April, but universities have not responded resolutely in addressing them. More importantly, though, I want to raise this issue to elicit a debate about the role of religious organizations on campus, whether Muslim, Christian or any other, and the role of the university as a place that can accommodate difference, whilst safeguarding universals. I see the university as a progressive space in Australian society that should engage separate views in its community and debate openly motivations for and against gender segregation derived from religious commitment. The pointy end of this issue is whether Australian universities are prepared to accommodate religious practices in public areas of the campus which contradict policies regarding student and staff behaviour.

PNG deal – regional solution or co-dependency

This is a pre-edited version, final version on theconversation.edu.au.

We are yet to find out the details of the deal struck between Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Peter O’Neill. What we know so far is that the agreement will see all boat arrivals without visas to Australia diverted to PNG for processing and potential resettlement. This sounds like a political and short-term stroke of genius to appeal to an important electoral minority, but regionally and for the long-term sounds like another ‘regional solution’ disaster.

From the performances and theatrics that we saw yesterday, as well as the media onslaught via youtube, facebook etc., this announcement is deemed (by the government and grudgingly by the opposition to some degree) to be the ‘silver bullet’, the circuit breaker to end the flow of the boats. Australian politicians have been working to find a solution to the increase in boat arrivals ever since the Tampa incident and Howard’s infamous declaration in 2001 that “we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come”. Ever since then the issue of refugees in Australia has been inextricably linked to border protection. The view holds that as long as we can police our borders we are in control of who comes here and how many people come here.

Indeed, Australia’s borders are amongst the best protected and policed considering the sheer size of the continent. The issue of control, however, is beside the point, because every boat carrying asylum seekers without visas which arrives on Australia’s shore is doing so legally. It is, after all, legal to ask for asylum of a signatory to the Refugee Convention.

Legality though is not really the issue here. Others have written in more detail about the anxieties of a nation built by boat people and the fear of boats full of ‘others’ arriving on our shores that may displace us, our way of life and culture. Suffice to say that since Vietnamese boat arrivals in the 1970s there has been a steady unease in dealing with the uncontrollable influx of others not regimented by the migration system.

For as Howard himself said in the same speech quoted above in 2001: “we are a generous open hearted people taking more refugees on a per capita basis than any nation except Canada, we have a proud record of welcoming people from 140 different nations.” But these refugees arrived in Australia as resettled refugees via an ordered and controllable system, not a queue, but nonetheless a system that allows us to decide who we let in and who we prioritise.

The resettlement programme in Australia is amongst the most generous systems as it offers a relative direct path to citizenship and an active engagement with the host country that some others do not. This proud history is now being endangered by the bifurcation of the system supposedly rewarding those refugees waiting in camps and urban settings around the world and punishing those who risk the perilous journey by boat. Many refugees have perished trying to make their way to Australia and the government responded with an expert panel on asylum seekers. Although its recommendations were fully taken on board by the government, one crucial element of the report, namely the imperative of a regional cooperation plan on protection and asylum has received scant attention by policy makers.

The PNG deal may raise hopes that finally the government is talking about a regional solution, with regional partners and actual agreements in place, but at the moment it looks more like a policy for regionally dumping refugees for Australia’s domestic political gain. With our short election cycles regional solutions to the refugee crisis in our region seem doomed to short term rush jobs. Indeed, without the major regional transit countries Malaysia and Indonesia at the table, the PNG deal remains just another bilateral contract that will now firmly bind Australia to O’Neill’s administration in PNG.

This creates a co-dependency that is based on substantial Australian financial aid (to be largely carried by the aid budget) for the acceptance of our refugees. This sets worrying precedents for how our aid budget is spent (already Australia is the third biggest recipient of Australian foreign aid after PNG and Indonesia) and how dependent we will be in regards to our refugee treaty obligations that will be effectively serviced by PNG.

Real solutions take time and meaningful engagement with key players, namely Malaysia and Indonesia. Australia could lead these efforts, not just as the paymaster but by engaging regional partners to deal with the ongoing ethnic conflicts in Myanmar/Burma and take an active role in the wider region, e.g. in regards to human rights in Sri Lanka.

All of that takes time, political will and compromise between partners, not Australia demanding regional countries to succumb to their short-term political exigencies.

New book on Why human security matters!

We (Dennis Altman, Joe Camilleri and Robyn Eckersley) have just published a book on ‘Why human security matters’ with Allen and Unwin. I have written a chapter with Chris Roche from Oxfam on the importance of bottom-up approaches to security that are both people-centred as well as generated by the people affected by insecurity. Security continues to be framed in high-level and statist terms that underestimate new approaches, new technologies and people movements or organisations that are finding sometimes radical, new ways of dealing with insecurity. Click here to order a copy. The book was officially launched on October 8th 2012 at Melbourne University by former Australian Foreign Minister and President Emeritus of the International Crisis Group Gareth Evans. Read his speech here.

Book Cover