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Desperate Conditions: Update on Malaysia as Burma Refuge
A follow-up to We Built This City

Improvised shelterProject Maje, March 2008

Nine months after the research which produced the Project Maje report "We Built This City: Workers from Burma at Risk in Malaysia" (July 2007) the situation for people from Burma seeking refuge and work in Malaysia has not improved at all. Raids by the Malaysian vigilante group Rela have continued and may be even more widespread. Rela activities are said to be especially violent and relentless in regions other than Kuala Lumpur, with the island of Penang especially prone to Rela raids. In addition to the abusive behavior of the government-sanctioned legitimate Rela units, the unlimited power of Rela has spawned copycat criminals who simply pose as Rela members in order to rob and extort from foreigners. Lack of police or government control of Rela continues in spite of international press coverage and pressure campaigns. Members of the Chin and Kachin communities mentioned recent legal in-sourcing of Bangladeshi workers to Malaysia as a new problem, driving down wages for the illegal foreign workers and increasing competition for jobs.

Malaysia Votes

A national parliamentary election was held in Malaysia on March 8, 2008. Unexpectedly, opposition parties made unprecedented gains, although the ruling party has been just able to hold onto enough parliamentary seats to form the government. During the election, "safety" and "security" were ubiquitous campaign keywords, with "illegal immigration" tied into those issues through association with crime (largely blamed on foreigners.) Although instituting a fair deal for workers from Burma was not a campaign issue, several Members of Parliament who are longtime Free Burma supporters held their seats and won new allies. As of March 18, 2008, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi merged two cabinet positions to form a Ministry of Internal Security and Home Affairs, replacing Home Affairs Minister Radzi Sheikh Ahmad with former Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar. The merged Ministry will be in charge of immigration issues and Rela.

Although Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi's administration (with Syed Hamid Albar as head of foreign relations) has been openly critical of Burma's junta, it has not taken steps to protect workers from Burma who are seeking refuge from that junta, and has so far ignored pleas to control the Rela vigilantes. Refugee leaders contrast this with Thailand's government, which although openly in a cozy relationship with Burma's generals, at least grants a legitimized status to many workers from Burma through a work permit program. The suppression of the September/October monk-led uprising in Burma's cities and towns was said to have caused a new refugee influx to Malaysia, particularly of young people who were students in the cities and had been politically active. A trend emerged in which people from Burma attempted to swim or hire boats to reach Singapore from Malaysia. Singapore was perceived as having greater job security and safety, although illegal immigrants in Singapore risked deportation directly back to Burma, and the water crossing was very dangerous.

Some refugees saw a ray of hope in the popularity in Malaysia of Sylvester Stallone's latest action movie, "John Rambo" (Rambo 4) because it depicts the brutality of Burma's military regime and has seemed to educate average Malaysians about the reasons why so many people had fled Burma to try and survive in their country.

Ground to a Halt

In addition to the ongoing Rela harassment, with raids, arrests and forced deportation to Thailand, a downturn in processing by the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in recent months was cited by a number of refugees and their community leaders. Refugees from the Chin and Kachin communities claimed that:

  • UNHCR executives, although well-meaning, seem out of touch with the real situation in Malaysia and rely on unmotivated local (Malaysian) staff rather than being involved in a more hands-on way.
  • UNHCR refugee status seems only to be granted to seriously ill people. The previous definition of "at risk" seems to have been narrowed down to only certain disease patients. The entire interview process previously in place is said to have ground to a halt.

Refugees told anecdotes of people taking extreme measures to seek UNHCR status, including deliberately seeking tuberculosis infection. While the UNHCR in Malaysia has in the past been very effective in advocating for Burma refugees and enabling thousands to achieve third country resettlement, the agency seems to be going in another direction, producing currently disappointing results.

Water sourceSome refugee leaders appear to be working towards forming an umbrella group for the various ethnic refugee organizations (Chin, Shan, Karen, Kachin, Karenni, Rakhine, Mon) which function almost like consulates for their respective populations in Malaysia. This alliance would decrease duplication of efforts and expenses, and provide more support for smaller or less experienced groups. Not included in a proposed alliance are Burmese (Burmans) or Rohingyas in Malaysia. The Burmese (Burmans) are perceived by other ethnic groups as perhaps infiltrated by spies from the regime. The Rohingyas are perceived as fragmented and not well-organized in Malaysia; discrimination against them from their home state in Burma has carried over into some segments of the refugee community. Lack of advocacy for the Rohingyas and lack of alliances with them is especially problematic as they are probably the largest group of refugees and have minimal recognition from the UNHCR. A 2004 Malaysian government promise to grant the Rohingyas guest worker cards was never fulfilled.

Kachin Fugitives

A Kachin campsite was visited where numerous young men were trying to adapt the jungle survival skills of their Himalayan foothills northern Burma homeland to a hidden scrub-jungle on the outskirts of suburban tropical Malaysia. Working in groups, the Kachins, who had fled forced labor in Burma, earned a pittance for their strenuous efforts clearing brush for a plantation. The plantation owner paid 50 ringgit for one acre of cleared brush, which would take 10 people one day to complete on a good day. This would mean about 5 ringgit per person per day of work (in March 2008, 5 Malaysian ringgit equaled about US $1.56.) Brush clearing did not take place every day, and was especially difficult during rainy weather. Not all of the camp residents were physically able to work at any given time. Payment for the work was shared among all the camp residents for purchase of rice and other necessities.

The camp shelters were built with bamboo, vines, and tarps. Baskets and other utensils were woven for camp use and for sale. Some fish were caught, birds and animals were hunted with slingshots or trapped, and plants were foraged to supplement the rice rations. The plantation employer did not provide food or medicine, and tools for the brush-clearing work were subtracted from wages. The camp residents used water from a shallow murky stream for drinking and washing. Several of them had suffered from malaria, which they treated themselves with purchased or donated medicines, not wanting to risk a medical visit which might be followed by a raid. Other health problems included work accidents, backaches and headaches, malnutrition, effects of nighttime cold temperatures, ringworm, bee stings and scorpion bites.

The residents of the camp endured the low wages and primitive conditions there because of their fear of arrest and deportation, because none had the refugee status cards which might make it safe enough to live and work for somewhat higher pay in a city or town in Malaysia (although even refugees with UNHCR cards in urban areas are also vulnerable to Rela raids.) They had moved their camp recently out of fear of raiders, and were constantly under the stress of knowing that their makeshift home could easily be invaded and burned, and that they might at any time be taken away to a detention camp and the depredations of the Thai border forced labor scenario, if not forced repatriation to Burma.

In February 2008, the human rights NGO Christian Solidarity Worldwide released a report (cited below) which included case studies of refugees from Burma in Malaysia and decried the "desperate conditions" in which they struggle to survive. The CSW report included recommendations for the Malaysian government, including disbanding Rela, and recommended that the UNHCR should "provide improved protection, through enhanced registration, recognition and ultimately resettlement mechanisms, for Burmese refugees in Malaysia." In March 2008, International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and Suara Rakyat Malaysia (SUARAM) released a report, "Undocumented migrants and refugees in Malaysia: Raids, Detention and Discrimination" (cited below) which detailed the role of Rela and the appalling treatment at the detention camps. The report included 54 detailed recommendations for the Malaysian government.

Other relevant reports/articles which have appeared in recent months and were not included in the source list of "We Built This City" are cited below. A sample letter for Malaysia's new Minister of Internal Security and Home Affairs is also included below.

Sample letter of concern:

Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar
Minister of Internal Security and Home Affairs
Level 12, Block D1, Parcel D
Federal Government Administrative Centre
62546 Putrajaya, Malaysia

Dear Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar,

I am writing to you because I am deeply concerned about the continuing raids by the group called Rela against foreigners who are seeking refuge and doing useful work in Malaysia. I believe that what Rela is doing is harmful to human rights and the Malaysian economy, and so I urge you to completely stop Rela from conducting its anti-foreigner activities. I also urge you to see that all refugees and asylum seekers who have been arrested by Rela, particularly those from Burma (Myanmar), are released. I know that you believe in human rights for Burma (Myanmar) and hope that in your new Cabinet position you will actively protect the human rights of those people from Burma (Myanmar) who seek refuge and work in Malaysia.




Sources and Links

Arshad, Arlina and Kin, Chong Chee "Myanmar illegals risk life and limb to enter Singapore" The Straits Times (Singapore), March 9, 2008

Chin Human Rights Organization "Rela Burns Down Refugee Shelters in Malaysia" January 25, 2008 press release
Note: other information on refugees in Malaysia can be found under "action alerts" at www.chro.org

Cho, Violet "Hundreds of Burmese migrants rounded up in Malaysia" The Irrawaddy, March 24, 2008

Christian Solidarity Worldwide "Visit to the Thailand-Burma Border and Malaysia" February, 2008

International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and Suara Rakyat Malaysia (SUARAM) released a report, "Undocumented migrants and refugees in Malaysia: Raids, Detention and Discrimination" March, 2008

Khambil, Victor "Why and How Chin Refugees Fled to Malaysia from Myanmar" Burma Digest, March 4, 2007

Kyaw Min Htun "Human Traffickers Get Free Rein with Burmese Migrants in Malaysia" Radio Free Asia, February 2, 2008

Mydans, Seth "A Growing Source of Fear for Migrants in Malaysia" New York Times, December 10, 2007

This report is by Project Maje, which is responsible for its content. Project Maje thanks those in Malaysia who assisted with the research for this update, and Bruce for the website.

Project Maje
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March 2008