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.

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.

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.