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…

Refugees continue to face uncertain future in our region

This article first appeared in The Australian newspaper on World refugee day 20.06.2012. This is the slightly longer, unedited version.

World refugee day yearly draws attention to the plight of over 40 million people who are either refugees, internally displaced or seeking asylum and the 800,000, who are newly displaced across borders in 2011. This global population almost twice the size of Australia’s population demands more efforts to support them.

Globally the main source countries of refugees and asylum seekers are Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia, together accounting for over 5 million according to the just released UNHCR Global Trends Report 2011. Regionally Myanmar/Burma remains the largest issue with hundreds of thousands residing in regional neighbouring countries such as Thailand, Bangladesh, India and Malaysia.

Australia has been a major resettlement country for our regional neighbours for a long time, perhaps most visibly starting with the resettlement of Vietnamese refugees n the 1980s. However, the current yearly scheduled intake of around 13,750 refugees (2010-2011 figures are 13,799) is paltry compared to most other Western industrialised nations. Alone UNHCR resettlement figures show Australia doing its bit with over 9,200 places in 2011 mainly from regional UNHCR offices.

The Bali Process and other regional instruments have hitherto been mainly deployed to shore up Australian efforts to keep asylum seekers and irregular migrants at bay, i.e. trapped within the borders of our neighbours. Yet, a regional solution to what amounts to a regional refugee crisis is paramount.

Such a regional solution will invariably involve sharing the burden of our neighbours and not just the financial burdens. This will involve increasing the yearly intake for resettlement from the region, particularly Malaysia, in exchange for tighter and more coordinated border security efforts with especially Indonesia.

Even though the ‘swap deal’ with Malaysia did not come to fruition, the attention it has cast upon the situation for refugees and asylum seekers there has to be maintained. Malaysia is home to an ever-increasing population of forcibly displaced people, most are from Myanmar/Burma. Aung San Suu Kyi has aptly warned of too much optimism about the political situation in her home and Australia’s move to lift its sanctions regime is unduly rewarding the Myanmar government for minor reform steps.

Thousands continue to flee ethnic and religious tensions, suppression, forced labour and a myriad of other human rights abuses by the Burmese military and a systematic process of marginalization of ethnic groups, especially Christian groups such as the Chin, Kachin and Karen peoples.

Many of them come to Malaysia via Thailand to seek protection. However, The Search: Protection Space in Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, The Philippines and Cambodia in Practice, a report released by the Jesuit Refugee Services Asia-Pacific shows that protection spaces in Southeast Asia are insufficient, forcing many to keep moving in search for more adequate and safer refuge.

Malaysia now houses one of the largest urban refugee populations in the region. Some figures place as many as 60,000 in the sprawling city of Kuala Lumpur alone. Many Myanmar minority ethnic groups such as the Chin, a Christian group from Chin state in Northwest Myanmar/Burma, are waiting patiently to be registered by the UNHCR in Kuala Lumpur. This is the most pressing issue for asylum seekers in Malaysia and the region, as the UNHCR card they receive will give them some recognition and protection from the police and immigration officials.

Registration was suspended in early 2010 and funds are urgently needed for the UNHCR and its community partners to resume the mammoth task of registering tens of thousands of asylum seekers in Malaysia alone. Registration is just a first step, but an indispensible one, for it gives refugees recognition and freedom of movement. Those without cards risk arrest and detention, some do not leave the house out of fear.

Once they are registered they have another long wait ahead of them for resettlement to a third country, mostly the United States of America, some European countries and Australia. While some can achieve this transition and resettlement within three years, many have waited a lot longer. Some have been in Malaysia for over ten years. In this time they have to hold down jobs to survive, some have married and started families – all long for a future in which they can take their destiny in their own hands.

In the current limbo they inhabit they face exploitation, harassment and the challenges of everyday life in a country that does not want them and barely tolerates their existence. Yet, things used to be even worse. Detention, whipping for immigration offences and raids by immigration officials have all decreased and there is a cautionary sense of calm amongst some refugee communities.

A critical US report on its human rights situation and the ‘Australia-Malaysia swap deal’ caused the Malaysian government to reconsider its treatment of refugees and asylum seekers. With concerted Australian support and pressure on the Malaysian government and funding of strategic partners such as the UNHCR and community and civil society partners asylum seekers can get better protection. Now is the time to build on the positive improvements and keep the attention and resources focused on those who need it most – refugees and asylum seekers in our region.

The Australian gvt’s ‘Malaysian solution’

There is much to celebrate between Australia and Malaysia; relations have been good between the two nations. The days of Mahathir’s vitriolic spats are over and closer co-operation between Canberra and Putrajaya continues to offer opportunities for trade and the education sector.

Closer co-operation, however, is most important for Australia’s border protection efforts, especially in curbing people smuggling through Southeast Asia, much of which transits through Malaysia. In this vein Canberra has maintained a close relationship with Malaysia’s police and customs agencies in an effort to stop not just people smugglers, but also asylum seekers.

Travellers destined for Australia who pass through Kuala Lumpur already routinely have their passports checked by Malaysian officials as well as Australian federal police at their departure gates. Canberra wishes to stop potential asylum seekers before they reach Australian soil. Thus, Kuala Lumpur International Airport has become part of an ever widening zone of extended border security that stretches through Southeast Asia and Melanesia to secure Australia from those seeking its protection.

That makes Malaysia an important ally for Australia, which has, for all intents and purposes, given up selling its East Timor processing centre to the region. Najib himself had expressed only careful support and presented himself as a co-operative force in the region for Australia.

With the deal announced this weekend by both Malaysia and Australia simultaneously Malaysia becomes the frontline partner in Australia’s and the region’s refugee crisis.

The agreement gives the Gillard government a political edge domestically as it directly addresses the Australian public’s wariness of the boats and people smugglers.

To address boat people, the government has long promised a humanitarian and regional solution that would deter people-smuggling and keep the boats at bay. Through the Bali Process Australia has built an alliance of partners to deter irregular movements of people throughout the region. Indonesia was the latest partner to pass new legislation to curb people smuggling by imposing high fines and harsh punishments. Malaysia had done so in 2007 with its Anti-Trafficking in Persons (ATIP) Act 2007.

These laws have not had the desired impacts, in fact, more policing only makes life harsher for the thousands of asylum seekers trapped in limbo in Indonesia and Malaysia. To further complicate things, Malaysia is neither a signatory to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees nor the 1967 Protocol; it simply does not recognise refugees and for the past several years has not funded the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) working in Malaysia.

Indeed, the UNHCR has a difficult job in a country that does not legally recognise refugees. Its efforts are curtailed by capacity issues and fewer than half of the asylum seekers in Malaysia are thought to have entered the processing system of the UNHCR.

In terms of the proposed agreement, Gillard and Bowen were adamant that their scheme would make the product sold by people-smugglers, ‘freedom’, a bad deal, as intercepted asylum seekers on boats would be flown right back to Malaysia and enter the ‘end of the queue’.

Malaysia surely would not like to see itself as the end of the queue, for that would suggest that there exists a queue and that Malaysia and Indonesia are it. This ignores the majority of refugees in refugee camps in or surrounding conflict areas.

Moreover, many questions remain. What will happen to asylum seekers who are sent to Malaysia? Gillard said they will not have special treatment for processing. However, considering that approximately 100,000 asylum seekers in Malaysia have not been processed by the UNHCR, what is to be done?

Many of those not processed are too poor to access the only UNHCR office in Kuala Lumpur, others do not have the relevant information available to them. UNHCR sometimes does field visits to process people in outlying areas, but again, many lack access. Access costs money and Australia may have to respond to this inequality when it seeks a fair treatment for its intercepted asylum seekers.

Already the rationale of swapping 800 unprocessed asylum seekers for 4000 registered refugees has been criticised by the opposition leader. Indeed, while the increase in the humanitarian intake is to be applauded this new agreement may join the growing list of failed regional solutions.

In any case, it will sadly not be down to what Gillard called a potential boat person’s ‘rational human decision’ to not pay people smugglers if they face being sent to Malaysia. Desperation of many of those who have lived in Malaysia for up to twenty years trumps rationality.