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Undocumented migrants: Strangers, ‘moral panics’ and betrayal of trust


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Why criminalise the undocumented workers when we know that, somewhere along the line, this issue was not created by the victims, Linda Lumayag writes.

Zygmunt Bauman, a Polish-British sociologist and philosopher, wrote Strangers at Our Door in 2016, referring to what happened in Europe in 2015.

The book tried to explain how countries perceive the “migration crisis” in Europe in the context of the “cosmic fear” that developed when migrants, immigrants, refugees and other non-citizen individuals and communities entered national borders. They were viewed as strangers in host countries that had relatively well-off economies.

‘Moral panics’

This perception sets the tone for viewing migrants and refugees as ‘outsiders’, poor, uneducated and dirty. Because they come in search of ‘something’, citizens of the country feel a migration crisis that is best expressed in “moral panics”.

Moral panics refer to the perceived fear that newcomers are around to challenge the existing order of society – foremost, national security and jobs. This ideological belief and practice suits well where political structures dwell on xenophobia, a perceived sense of entitlement and racism.

The migrant situation in Malaysia is poised to reflect what Bauman attempts to describe in his book. Although discrimination against migrant workers, immigrants and refugees has been around for many decades, especially after the 1990s, intermittent racist calls break out in the open every time the country faces a downturn, usually economic. This time it is the global coronavirus pandemic. (We remember migrant workers were called guest workers in the early 1980s, when then-Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad began his industrialisation and export-led economic policies.)

Recently, Malaysian public opinion again shot into overdrive when boatloads of Rohingya refugees arrived in Malaysian waters. Sentiments that bordered on xenophobia and racism once again swirled in social media saying that Malaysia has to save its “own boat” first before they are able to “save the boat from another country”. At least five online petitions opposed their coming (though these were later yanked off).

Other opinions also vouched for Malaysia’s sovereignty and territorial independence, saying the country could refuse entry if it wishes for health reasons. Some argued that Malaysia has been receiving refugees from other countries anyway, so it is all right to refuse them this time.

May Day raids

Then came the infamous May Day arrests and detention of undocumented migrants in downtown Kuala Lumpur.

May Day is often celebrated the world over with jubilation, amid sustained calls by the working class for just working conditions, higher wages, and the right to unionise and to have a safe workplace. Workers across economic sectors express their struggles on the streets and establish solidarity with the working class.

Malaysia comes from a different mould. Because of a raft of laws and regulations that aim to suppress people’s rights, workers have an anaemic attitude towards Labour Day celebrations.

While labour groups in other countries were busy reminiscing about how difficult it was to organise street rallies in earlier days, today’s pandemic lockdowns shifted the mode of celebration to virtual solidarity organising.

But something was brewing in downtown Kuala Lumpur. The Immigration Department and the police carried out joint raids in the old parts of Kuala Lumpur where enclaves of immigrants and migrant workers and refugees had taken root. Malaysian health authorities identified one cluster from this area around the Malayan Mansion and Selangor Mansion along the street of Masjid India.

Conducting raids during health crisis and during a partial lockdown was beyond the comprehension of many. During the first phase of the movement control order, the Perikatan Nasional government specifically said there would be no arrests and detentions of undocumented migrants and refugees.

It was interesting to note the timing of the raid. It was on 1 May too that that a Singapore-based university ran a commentary on the extent of infection in Singapore from the foreign workers’ cluster. In that commentary, it carried a ‘warning bell’ for Malaysia considering its huge foreign labour force, especially the undocumented workforce.

That might have motivated the blitzkrieg operation that led to over 500 undocumented workers from Bangladesh, Nepal and Myanmar being hauled up.

But Singapore’s management of migrant workers is different from Malaysia’s, so Malaysia cannot emulate what Singapore has been doing without looking at why there has been a horrendous increase in undocumented migrants in this country.

Over again, we look at the level of vulnerability of migrants and refugees in situations like the coronavirus pandemic – vulnerability in the hands of authorities that view migrants as strangers rather than as social and economic actors.

According to a recent revelation from the Malaysian Employers Federation (MEF), over 85% of the workforce comprise immigrants, migrants and refugee communities. So we seriously need to shift the perspective of the state.

From documented to undocumented

The authorities should not wash their hands off the undocumented in Malaysia and put all the blame on the hapless undocumented.

Remember, migrants mostly enter Malaysia with their passports in their possession; they come as documented, they pass through legal channels, with biometric details recorded upon entry. The government spends millions on installing monitoring mechanisms including biometric machines, passport-readable machines and other forms to fill. Migrants go through this process, with more paper documentation added in.

Yet, many migrants have been rendered undocumented because their passports are taken away by employment agents and employers? We have the Passport Act 1966 to invoke against those who keep the passports of others. Yet this has not been publicised by the authorities.

This is not something new; it has been a perennial problem. Yet, immigrants and migrant workers are viewed as criminals, and the authorities say they have violated the immigration laws in the country.

Since the movement control order was declared, all kinds of horrid thoughts ran through the minds of the undocumented: the possibility of being arrested and detained and, in the process, being infected – or going hungry and being unable to ask for help even from employers for fear they may be asking too much.

In one case we encountered, an undocumented said, “My employer is kindhearted, I know that. I only have a few ringgit left to buy water. But I do not want to sound very demanding for fear that she may retrench me when the MCO is over.”

What happened to the authorities’ promise during the first phase of the movement control order – that the undocumented would not be arrested – to save Malaysia, citizens and non-citizens alike, from the spread of the coronavirus?

As we witnessed the raids as part of the health strategies under the watchful eyes of the authorities, we wondered if a new cluster of infection would come out of this. Would they be sent back to their home countries without going through the routine Covid-19 checks? Would they be sent back without going through the standard immigration protocol, ie informing the embassies concerned of their detention, followed by the usual documentation for both countries?

In this time, when we need the cooperation of the entire population, we should not invoke legal precepts that support the right of Malaysia to criminalise the undocumented. Already, migrant communities are struggling to fully trust anyone – the police, immigration personnel, agents, employers, NGOs, and even wayward friends.

The recent spate of arrests amounts to a betrayal of trust. Why criminalise the undocumented workers when we know that, somewhere along the line, this issue was not created by the victims? They paid huge money to unscrupulous agents, who in turn paid their way through. The first wave of arrests and detention will prompt the undocumented to go into hiding and remain undetected.

What we need is a humanitarian solution to this pandemic – and that includes mass testing regardless of immigration status besides decriminalising their stay in Malaysia during this time.

The coronavirus is ‘friendly’ to everyone regardless of citizenship status. Covid-19 is a ‘migrant’ itself. It behaves as if it is a transnational living organism.

The only way for us to defeat it is for us to come together as one in solidarity.

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.

AGENDA RAKYAT - Lima perkara utama
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