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Undocumented legal ghosts

File photo courtesy of Chin Refugees in Malaysia

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Why is a lack of official identification a crime; are these people at fault for being the victims of circumstance, wonders Angeline Loh.

Many of us take our identification cards, passports, our birth certificates and other legal documents for granted. We know who we are, where we come from, and the citizenship we hold.

We are so sure, confident and certain that we have resort to help from government authorities at home or when we are abroad on holiday trips, business or anything else requiring travel abroad. We feel safe and secure.

Surf the internet, switch on the TV or open a newspaper and you won’t fail to come across reports of immigration raids on entertainment outlets, night spots, low-cost flats, shops, or factories for so-called ‘illegal immigrants’ or undocumented migrant workers.

Often, those arrested in the dragnet include refugees and asylum seekers, who might be able to prove their refugee status as UNHCR card holders or have nothing or little to show of their identity pending registration with the UN refugee agency. They, with other undocumented migrant,s usually end up detained in immigration detention facilities around the country.

Reading about or watching this in the comfort of our own homes, we might find it all so remote and unreal. It is hard or near impossible to imagine such a thing ever happening to ourselves, the legal citizens and residents of Malaysia.

Many of us are aware of the hassle we face if we lose our ICs: the police reports we have to make, and then the long wait and form-filling at the registration department office to get a replacement identity card. At least, we have our birth certificate registration to back us up.

What if we had no birth certificates or ICs? Or whatever identification documents we had were not recognised or acceptable to the authorities? The implications are unthinkable.

Birth certificates, identity cards, passports and citizenship documents are legal proof and recognition of our human existence; without any of these a person does not legally exist. They are undocumented legal wraiths or ghosts.

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Legal ghosts have no legal rights. No national authority will afford them protection, they are isolated from mainstream society, relegated to being ‘illegals’ who are viewed as a ‘danger’ to national security in this country.

Yet, this is the reality lived by hundreds and thousands of undocumented people i.e.

  • asylum seekers and refugees,
  • migrant children born or trafficked into Malaysia,
  • Malaysian children from indigenous communities living in the interior of the country,
  • adults who were never registered but were born or brought here by migrant forebears,
  • children of unidentifiable parentage, and
  • others who have in one way or another been overlooked or faced identity complications with the registration authorities.

Effects of being undocumented

Legal wraiths are unable to go to school; apply for an identity card, passport, or job; vote, register their marriages, among other things requiring official proof of identification or legal validity.

Many end up as undocumented blue-collar workers due to their illiteracy. They are prevented from joining trade unions without legally registrable identification.

They become stateless as well, being vulnerable to detention and deportation, possibly to neighbouring countries where they would still be rejected, being undocumented and possibly with no family connections there.

Along the way, they face human rights abuse by authorities; they are unprotected from human traffickers, criminal syndicates and gangs, remaining totally invisible to society at large.

They become outcasts of all societies and countries in the world, simply because of the lack of documented identification. They are very often ostracised by any society they try to settle down in, facing racial abuse and ethnic discrimination or exclusion for being ‘undocumented’ and illiterate, thus joining the ranks of the hardcore poor.

However, the manner in which undocumented persons (many of whom appear to be migrants) are treated, often makes being undocumented a crime. Why is a lack of official identification a crime? Are these people at fault for being the victims of circumstance?

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The negativity of society is irrational and unreasonable. There is an Asian habit of unjustly making an alleged “bad luck bringer” blameworthy.

Such a perception is unjust and cruel as any tragedy or disaster within a family is blamed on the outcast child, regardless of any proof of the child’s innocence or the disconnection between the event and the outcast. How can such a practice arising from superstition be justified in our 21st Century society?

Alleged security risks relating to undocumented persons

Moreover, what security risk does an undocumented person pose to the country? Having no documents per se is a security risk to the undocumented person rather than to any government or society. The war-on-terror excuse that is so popular these days creates paranoia, justifies violence and its spread, and seems to strengthen the defiance of particular sections of society which support violence and cruelty.

We should be asking why the powers that be have no pro-active or positive response to resolving the issue of the status of undocumented persons, instead of herding these legal wraiths, who are our fellow human beings, into a vicious cycle of unjust suffering.

Defensive action against vulnerable undocumented people will not eliminate the entry of potential documented terrorists crossing borders.

The undocumented become political scapegoats or diversions in times of political uncertainty. They are unable to defend themselves and are easy targets for political as well as economic and social exploitation. They become commodities traded by human traffickers and slave labour on whose backs profit is made in illicit as well as legitimate profiteering enterprises.

The ‘undocumented person’ issue has been prevalent for ages; yet very few, if any, government has truly found a humane solution to the problem, or afforded proper protection to undocumented persons. Instead the tendency is to resort to extreme measures involving the denial and violations of basic human rights, physical abuse, and the criminalisation of the undocumented.

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The absence of protection for undocumented persons opens illicit avenues for their extortion and exploitation by criminal syndicates to make ‘black money’ out of fake and forged documents. Such ‘prized’ documents i.e. passports and identification cards, cost the desperate undocumented person hundreds or thousands of ringgit in hard cash.

These fake documents afford temporary minimum ‘protection’ from harassment, arrest and detention of the undocumented person. Any document, whether valid or illicit, gives a person some apparent legal substance, a ‘legal’ face and ‘valid’ visible existence.

The failure of the authorities (whether federal or local) to understand the need to resolve the undocumented issue by instituting legalisation of the undocumented results in their widespread stigmatisation as criminals, security risks and undesirables. On such basis, the authorities justify the violation of the human dignity and rights of these undocumented persons.

Using the media to brand undocumented persons as potential criminals, trouble-makers, fugitives, and national security risks, the powers that be show themselves lacking in any understanding of migrant and refugee issues. Neither do they understand the root causes of the circumstances that force refugees and migrants to seek shelter, safety, or better pastures.

In many ways, the federal government has exhibited immaturity, deliberate ignorance, cruelty and inhumanity towards undocumented persons, working class migrants, and refugees. Should the Malaysian people condone such politically motivated actions?

Presently, Malaysia seems to be walking backwards instead of forwards, glorifying wilful ignorance, irrationality, racism, violence, oppression of the poor, and the demeaning of the human being through the blatant violations of the human rights of Malaysians and non-Malaysians.

The government has not yet shown any embarrassment or contrition for any wrongdoing against its own people, let alone the degradation practised against foreign peoples.

Can any Malaysian remain a silent bystander in the face of our international disgrace brought on by those presently in power, who mean to stay there forever?

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