Home 2010: 6 Malaysia’s invisible blockade

Malaysia’s invisible blockade

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Don’t weep for Gaza only; weep also for refugees and migrants in Malaysia, says Angeline Loh.


In the aftermath of the Israeli marine forces’ attack on the Turkish humanitarian vessel 40 miles into international waters, which resulted in 10 activists being killed, widespread outrage was expressed by the Malaysian government, civil society organisations, and political parties alike.

Street protests were held expressing outrage at Israeli actions and sympathy for the Palestinians in Gaza. Rosmah Mansor, wife of Prime Minister Najib Razak, was reported to have shed tears when handing over US$45,000 to the Turkish Ambassador for the families of the nine Turkish activists killed in this tragic incident (theSun, 10 June 2010).

Whiles Palestinians blockaded in Gaza deserve sympathy and support for the violations of their human rights by the Israeli occupiers of their land with humanitarian aid from the international community, the dire situation of refugees, asylum seekers and undocumented migrants in Malaysia remains little changed.

Regardless of nationality, country of origin and religion, refugees – fleeing from wars, persecution and other human rights violations in their own countries – seeking a safe haven in Malaysia continue to live in fear and uncertainty.

The reasons for this have been well documented over the past few years and have been the subject of numerous civil society press statements and media comment, including statements by the UN refugee agency.

Despite the obviously difficult position in which refugees and asylum seekers find themselves in this country – being legally unrecognised by Malaysian law, even if they possess genuine UNHCR documentation – they have been shown virtually no sympathy by the Government.

Refugee communities continue to struggle to survive without legal rights to work to sustain themselves and their families here. Refugee children, like children of migrant workers, continue to be denied the right to a proper education in local schools.

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Access to medical treatment and healthcare is difficult and unaffordable as migrants and refugees are expected to pay expatriate fees (even if discounted) for medical services at government hospitals, regardless of their economic situation. Refugees are even denied the ability to be self-reliant as they are prohibited from starting their own  small business ventures to earn a living to support their families.

Refugees, asylum seekers and migrant workers, particularly those entering the country undocumented may fall prey to harassment and extortion by corrupt security enforcers, service sector personnel, local criminal syndicates and human traffickers.

There is no guarantee of safety from arrest and detention in immigration detention camps (IDCs), prisons or lock-ups around the country. No protection from disruption and tragedy in their daily lives. They are forced to live one day at a time from day to day, never being certain what will happen the next day.

Migrants, refugees and asylum seekers continue to remain at the top of the Home Affairs Ministry list of  national security threats, second only to drug trafficking.

Invisible blockade of undocumented migrants and refugees

The restrictions imposed on migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia seem akin to the concrete walls, restriction of movement, checkpoints, searches, arrests, imprisonment and harassment faced by the Palestinians in Gaza. The only difference is that this blockade of refugees, asylum seekers and undocumented migrants is invisible to most Malaysian citizens.

Public ignorance of the reasons refugees come to our country and how people become refugees is another wall in the refugee/migrant maze that serves to isolate and effectively prevent acceptance of their existence and presence in our society. This ignorance is aggravated by official implication that these legally unrecognised and undocumented persons are ‘criminals’ or ‘potential criminals’.

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Such lack of awareness and the mental block of refugees and their circumstances is constantly “hammered” into the Malaysian public psyche by government ministers who allege that refugees coming to Malaysia are economic migrants (Soalan No. 49 Pertanyaan Bagi Jawab Lisan Dewan Rakyat Mesyuarat, Second sitting, Third term, 12 th Parliamen Kedua Belas 2010).

More walls are added to the invisible blockade through the use of the mainstream media, which often makes ‘examples’ of foreigners seen to be involved in any criminal activity even if these foreigners may be victims of human trafficking. This is seen from the frequent media coverage of police raids on vice dens in Kuala Lumpur and other large cities in the country.

Reports of such raids are presented in considerably sordid detail and television cameras are allowed to take footage within the raided premises exposing foreign workers employed by operators of these illegal joints to public glare (RTM and ntv7 news reports).

Similarly, a raid was carried out in full public glare at a shopping mall in Pulau Tikus, Penang on a Sunday afternoon, 18 July 2010. Foreigners were rounded up and made to sit outside by the pavement in full public view while their  documents were checked by immigration officials, working together with Rela and police personnels (oral information from an eye-witness).

It appears to be an official habit in Malaysia to mete out humiliation before even knowing what the crime committed is. The innocent are stigmatised without evidence and some are subjected to public embarrassment for no good reason at all. The underlying official attitude seems to be ‘guilty until proven innocent’ dismissing any presumption of innocence that may justly apply. In the case of undocumented migrants, refugees and asylum seekers the misapplication is even worse as the offence is not criminal in the real sense, but only an administrative one of lacking documents or any means of legal proof of identification.

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This kind of humiliation has become a malpractice affecting, not only foreigners but also unfortunate Malaysian citizens who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, who apparently pose some sort of political threat to the powers-that-be or belong to marginalised ethnic communities.

The official entrenchment of xenophobia against any foreigner, especially impoverished and defenceless refugees, asylum seekers and undocumented migrants raises another wall in the  ‘blockade’ of this category of people.

Some authorities apparently prefer the use of racism and xenophobia over a better immigration control system that might deal with current global migration problems more justly, effectively and humanely.

Like the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, refugees, asylum seekers and migrants here live in uncertainty, insecurity and fear in a very obvious, yet paradoxically invisible blockade.

It is for them also that we should also weep. Perhaps, we should also shed a tear for our own wilful blindness to their victimisation and suffering that concretely and pitilessly supports the invisible blockading of the marginalised peoples in our society.

Angeline Loh is an Aliran exco member.

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The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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