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Activists Warn Malaysia Crackdown May Sweep Up Refugees

Detained suspected illegal migrant workers from Indonesia stand before their documents are checked during a crackdown on illegal migrant workers in Nilai, outside Kuala Lumpur September 1, 2013.

Detained suspected illegal migrant workers from Indonesia stand before their documents are checked during a crackdown on illegal migrant workers in Nilai, outside Kuala Lumpur September 1, 2013.

Labor and human rights activists are warning that asylum seekers and refugees may get swept up in Malaysia’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants and that the country is not equipped to handle them properly.

Malaysian Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi has promised the nationwide operation to detain and deport as many as half a million foreigners will follow international standards. But Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch says Malaysia is far from being in line with such standards.

“Malaysian law doesn’t recognize refugee status. There’s no actual provision for status for refugee in immigration law, and unfortunately what that means is that the Malaysian government really has an open field in front of it,” Robertson, the deputy director of the group’s Asia Division, said Tuesday from Chiang Mai, Thailand.

There are more than 100,000 refugees registered in Malaysia, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The majority of them are ethnic Burmese minorities who say they have fled persecution back home.

Urban refugees

The men, women and children are known as “urban refugees” because there are no special camps for them. They live in low-cost housing scattered across the country, making it difficult to distinguish refugees from other migrants who may or may not be in the country legally.

“These people are in many cases in places where this crackdown is going to come," said Robertson. "So they’re going to be sweeping up refugees in addition to undocumented workers.”

More than 2,000 immigrants were rounded up on the first day of the operation on Sunday, about a quarter of the people whose papers were examined, according to the Home Ministry. Indonesian, Burmese, Bangladesh and Nepalese nationals made up most of those detained.

Burmese labor activists in the country say migrants are nervous about what seems to be a chaotic process.

“There’s widespread arrests in factories, industrial zones and in the cities,” activist Aung Gyi reported from Kuala Lumpur. “They target areas where foreigners live. In the area known as Myanmar village where a lot of Burmese are living, they have arrested Burmese who have UNHCR documents, legal work permits, and also illegals.”

Help for some, not all

U Soe Win, a labor attaché with the Burmese Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, said a Burmese government delegation will soon leave for Malaysia to discuss the situation. He expressed some hope for refugees, but said others may be on their own.

“We cannot do much for illegal Burmese workers if they violate the immigration law. My best advice to them now is to be careful in the daily activities. Since this is an operation, a lot of workers will be rounded up, but those with legal documents will not be detained,” U Soe Win said.

He said Burmese immigrants facing repatriation can apply for a certificate of identity at the embassy and arrange to return home.

It will be a painful process for many of the immigrants, some of whom came to Malaysia on their own, or with the help of paid human smugglers, to work on palm oil plantations and construction sites, or to care and cook for Malaysian families. For others who were trafficked to the country as sex slaves, it could be a relief.

Traffic cops

But Robertson of Human Rights Watch says he has as much concern about Malaysia’s ability to handle human trafficking victims properly as he does about refugees.

“I would venture that the frontline police officer in Malaysia couldn’t identify a human trafficking victim with a cheat sheet,” he said.

Malaysia landed on the U.S. State Department’s Tier 2 Watch List this year for the fourth year in a row because of the government’s poor compliance with standards to end human trafficking.

Malaysia’s Home Minister has promised that the crackdown on illegal immigration will be sensitive, and that immigrants who qualify for legal papers will be processed. He is encouraging immigrants to work directly with government officials and not with middlemen who could exploit them.

That said, the minister said authorities will not compromise in their efforts. Their target, he said, is to “achieve zero illegal immigrants.”

This report was prepared in collaboration with VOA's Burmese Service.