Friday, February 19, 2010

Playing Tom and Jerry in Malaysia

Playing Tom and Jerry in Malaysia

KUALA LUMPUR––Standing at the jungle's edge, my companions took one last look around to make sure no one was watching before leaping into the brush. Crawling on all fours through thick jungle, we made our way to the top of the hill where there was a clearing. They hung their wet clothes on a tree and laid palm leaves across the ground for bedding.

"This is our camp. It’s where we come to hide," said one.

These men aren't part of a rebel army, nor are they bandits––the crime they've committed is working illegally in a country which doesn't generally take kindly to refugees.

Like thousands of other asylum seekers, these Burmese migrants have turned to the remoteness of the jungle to hide from immigration authorities. Living in flimsy bamboo huts, Burmese refugees are similarly scattered all over the Malaysian jungle. With a crackdown due to start the next morning, thousands more have reportedly opted to leave the cities to go where the police can’t find them.

"It's like Tom and Jerry," one of my escorts chuckles. "When the police come, we run away. Now that there is another crackdown there will be many more 'Jerrys' running toward the jungle."

Recently, the Malaysian government announced that they would be cracking down on employers who hire illegal migrant workers. Immigration Director-General Datuk Abdul Rahman Otham said harbouring or hiring illegal immigrants could be linked to offences under the Anti-trafficking Persons Act.

"These drastic measures are needed to curb the number of overstayers in the country," he said.

Although the government has said they believe immigrants are taking Malaysian jobs, human rights groups don't think it's transparent why they have made it a national policy to crackdown. Some have expressed concern that the welfare of migrant workers has fallen into the hands of Malaysian power politics.

As the crackdown was announced on Chinese New Year, Feb. 14, some activists around Kuala Lumpur believe this was a direct threat to the Chinese communities to support the ruling party after it received little support from Chinese voters in the last election. Irene Fernandez, an opposition politician and director of human rights NGO Tenaganita believes that there was some political motivation.

“They say they need to lower the dependence on foreign workers, but it’s not true. Just last week the minister approved work permits for 100,000 new migrant workers.

“People are making a lot of money out of migrant workers. The government is making a lot of money out of them,” she said. “All the recruitment agencies are owned by government cronies and family. If more migrant workers are legalised, their businesses make more money."

She went on to explain how soaring profits are made out of the migrant worker communities. Levies are taken off their wages directly by their employers and they all have to pay for visa renewals and various other fees.

Commenting on the human rights situation in Malaysia, Phil Roberston, the deputy Asia Director at Human Rights Watch, said, “The Malaysian government appears to be more interested in pursuing short-term political advantage than safeguarding rights. In the hopes of maintaining control and power, the government has turned its back on its promises to protect people's rights."

The imminent crackdown has sent panic throughout the refugee communities, which live in fear that the Malaysian authorities will raid their homes. Unlike other countries, arrest means more than a telling off and a small fine. In Malaysia, arrested migrants are shipped off to one of many detention centers around the country.

Nearly all the refugees around Kuala Lumphur have been incarcerated at some point during their time in Malaysia, and every one that spoke to The Irrawaddy told of horrific conditions and abuse.

“When I arrived they whipped me so badly I couldn't walk for days,” said one former detainee. “They continued beating me for the entire six months I was there. It was really the most terrible time in my life. We had terrible food and living conditions. The worst thing was knowing that the women were being raped by the guards."

Many of the NGOs working with refugees said they are very concerned.

One NGO member said they had been informed that people are eating grass from the courtyard, partly to constipate themselves and partly because they are so hungry. Many have died in the detention centres, she said, and there was a recent wave of leptospirosis infections, a disease spread by animal faeces in the water.

Prisons Department Director General Datuk Zulkifili Omar recently announced that eight prisons in Malaysia are overcrowded with 5,400 foreigners there for immigration offences.

Another refugee told The Irrawaddy how he wished he had been taken to a detention centre because he believed his ordeal was far worse. Having been arrested in Kuala Lumpur at his home during a midnight raid by the Malaysian authorities he was taken to a holding centre and beaten by the guards who accused him of stealing.

He was then thrown into the back of a van packed with other detainees and driven overnight to the Malaysian-Thai border area where he was told to find money for his release. Otherwise, they told him, he would be killed and no one would know. With no family and no one to contact at the border, he was unable to raise the money and they eventually sold him to work on a fishing boat.

"I spent one year on a fishing boat being beaten. I worked day and night and didn't receive one cent for my work. I can never forget the feeling that I was a slave," he told The Irrawaddy.

His story is one which is shared by thousands of refugees in Malaysia who are often unrecognized by the authorities. When he was 20 years old, the Burmese army came to his mother's home and forced them to leave, saying their land was being confiscated to make way for a highway connecting Arakan State with Rangoon.

Angry at this, he contested the matter and was thrown in prison. When he was finally released, he felt it was no longer safe for him to stay in his hometown so he fled to Thailand and eventually to Malaysia. Although the UN's refugee agency, UNHCR, have recognized him and issued him an ID card, he said he has never felt safe since he was trafficked to the Thai border.

Many of the refugees who have been issued UNHCR cards report that the Ikatan Relawan Rakyat (the People’s Volunteer Core), known as the “Rela,” and immigration police do not treat them as refugees and state that because the UNHCR has no agreement with the Malaysian government, the cards mean nothing. Malaysia has not ratified the 1951 UN convention relating to the status of refugees.

Although it was recently announced that the Malaysian government will issue identity cards for UNHCR refugees so they will not be arrested, the refugees aren't confident it will work. Having already experienced Rela's treatment of cardholders first hand, they believe it could just become another way for Rela to ransom their cards in return for money or simply destroy them and send them to detention centers.

Rela staffers have been frequently accused of abusing their authority. Made up of 300,000 volunteers who are largely uneducated and unable to find jobs elsewhere, they have been put in charge of rounding up illegal aliens in Malaysia. Given just a few days training, they are put onto ther streets to hunt down illegal migrants and send them to detention centers for deportation.

For the refugees who have already been registered and accepted by UNHCR there are concerns about crackdowns, but not as much as there is for the thousands of refugees who are still waiting to be accepted by UNHCR. With no cards or documents they face the highest risk of arrest.

Many Burmese refugees told The Irrawaddy how the Rela are often heavy-handed during the raids and often ripped up their UNHCR cards. Refugees believe they do this to show the government they are doing a good job and meeting their quota.

Another incentive they believe was the 80 Malaysian ringit (US $25) which Rela volunteers used to receive for every migrant worker they arrested. This system has apparently ceased, though similar incentives reportedly exist.

Human Rights Watch Malaysia describe Rela as "an ill-trained, abusive civilian force, [which uses] its authority to enter living quarters and make arrests without search or arrest warrants.”

Many human rights groups believe the only reason the government uses force is to save money by not having to pay the police and commit to pensions and long-term contracts.

The crackdown has sent fear among Malaysian employers who are keen to avoid confrontation with the Rela and immigration officials.

As a result, many have sacked their illegal workers stating that they cannot afford to risk the heavy fines. This has left many migrants unemployed and fighting for survival.

In one ethnic group's shelter, the coordinator said: “Our shelter is packed. We have 200 refugees who have all recently lost their jobs. It’s extremely worrying.

More and more will lose their jobs in the coming months and I don't know how they will survive.”

A Burmese migrant worker looks out from the jungle at an industrial estate where a recent police crackdown took place. (PHOTO: ALEX ELLGEE)




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