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Malaysia's migration paradox


A large segment of Malaysian society and the government in particular seem clearly xenophobic towards migrant workers, asylum seekers and refugees. Yet in an oxymoronic way, Malaysia continues to insist on having these foreigners on her soil.

More recently, Malaysia has thrown its arms wide open to asylum seekers heading to Australia, risking life and limb for a better future. How does one explain this rather bizarre phenomenon?

According to statistics by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office in Kuala Lumpur, as of January 2012 there were approximately 97,000 refugees and asylum seekers in the country, with many more asylum seekers knocking on its doors every day for refugees status. Most are from Myanmar (91 per cent) while the rest are from Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.

These are men, women and children who have fled their country owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted. They make arduous journeys to countries like Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Australia in the fervent hope that the host country will offer them protection.

Unfortunately, protection is not exactly what they receive in Malaysia. Asylum seekers and refugees have no legal status here, and while the authorities have assured UNHCR and civil society that they will not be disturbed, asylum seekers and refugees are frequently subjected to brutal raids, arrest, detention and sometimes deportation.

Adults are not allowed to work in the formal sector while children of these foreigners have no access to government schools. Most live precariously in rudimentary conditions such as shacks, construction sites and even jungles fringing big cities.

There are also reports of extortion, physical abuse and human trafficking. Not surprisingly, Malaysia has been the subject of numerous international reports documenting the appalling treatment received by asylum seekers and refugees.

The World Refugee Survey commissioned by the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants in 2007 ranked Malaysia among the ten worst countries for refugees, together with Kenya, Sudan and Bangladesh. A 2010 Amnesty International report recorded numerous cases of foreigner abuse including trafficking by Malaysian security forces at the Thai-Malaysia border, some as recent as 2009.

Due to the frequent raids, detention camps are often filled to breaking point and living conditions are distressing. In an attempt to reduce this overcrowding, Malaysia negotiated with Myanmar a detainee-swap deal, under which Malaysia will return Myanmar detainees in exchange for Malaysian detainees held in Myanmar prisons.

When the deal hit the news in October 2011, it drew heavy fire from civil society including the Malaysia Bar Council and SUARAM, a national human rights NGO. It is unclear if Malaysia went ahead with the deal.

Having observed this xenophobic attitude for over 20 years, any right thinking person would conclude that Malaysia has a serious problem with asylum seekers and refugees. She wants them out. So it is a wonder that Malaysia has now taken a position that suggests she can't get enough of them.

This appears to be the case when one considers how hard Malaysia campaigned for the Australia-Malaysia refugee swap deal, touted as the 'Malaysia solution'. The Australian government signed an agreement with the Malaysian government on 25 July 2011 to ship 800 asylum seekers to Malaysia in exchange for 4000 of its refugees.

Civil societies in both countries were up in arms over the deal and staged a dramatic campaign to bring it down. Both governments defended it with everything they had. However by 31 August 2011 the deal was in tatters when the High Court of Australia declared the agreement 'invalid' for not meeting human rights standards stipulated in Australian law, particularly in relation to the 1951 UN Convention relating to refugees, which Australia is party to but not Malaysia.

The Australian government then decided to move Parliament to amend the law to 'legalise' the deal but all this came to a grinding and embarrassing halt when Prime Minister Julia Gillard abandoned the bill at the last moment on 13 October 2011.

That was not the end of the matter. On 25 January 2012, Malaysian Home Minister Hishamuddin Hussein once again offered to host asylum seekers in Malaysia. This time the invitation was made out to any country. He also expressed his disappointment that the Malaysia solution with Australia failed and blamed it on the Australian government.

Why the sudden interest? Could it be that the Malaysian government has begun to see that vulnerable people deserve care and protection? Or is it now clearer to the government that asylum seekers and refugees are not criminals looking to rob its host but people needing help?

If this is the case, then it is odd that Malaysia would continue to deny asylum seekers and refugees a legally recognised status. Maintaining that these are undocumented persons in the eyes of the law clearly debunks any suggestion that Malaysia has seen the light, even a dim one.

Perhaps Malaysia feels it is time to uphold basic human rights for all people regardless of nationality, including the right to protection against persecution. After all, under the leadership of Prime Minister Najib Razak, the government has unleashed a slew of reforms that promise to guarantee more civil liberties. Isn't it possible that he would want to extend the same attitude towards foreigners?

If this is so, it is hard to explain Malaysia's objection to signing the 1951 UN Convention relating to refugees, which comprehensively states the standards a country ought to observe if it was serious about respecting the basic rights of asylum seekers and refugees.

It would also be extremely hard to rationalise why Malaysia audaciously objected to human rights provisions in the refugee swap deal when first negotiated with Australia. It is clear that Malaysia is not interested in human rights for asylum seekers and refugees. In fact the converse is probably true.

What about a purely arithmetic rationale? It makes economic sense to take in 800 asylum seekers from Australia and in return send 4000 processed refugees. The numbers are clearly in Malaysia's favor. The net outflow of 3200 unwanted foreigners would reduce the congestion in detention centers and by extension Malaysia's financial burden of hosting them for long periods.

This seems the best explanation for Malaysia's interest in asylum seekers and refugees, until one considers yet another figure: 1 billion ringgit. That is the cost of the deal, reportedly borne so kindly by the Australian government. Considering that asylum seekers are turned away before they touch Australian soil, it is a fair assumption that the bulk of the 1 billion ringgit would be spent in Malaysia.

One could speculate that the money would be utilised to put up new facilities, supply catering, make transportation and security arrangements and purchase equipment. Of course this would necessarily mean Malaysia would have the added burden of having to dole out mouth-watering contracts to salivating companies. Are we to assume that this would be done in a careful and transparent manner underpinned by the principle that the best man with the best price gets the job?

Then there is the inevitable benefit that jobs would be created and the Malaysian economy would receive a boost even if in a small way. Might this have been a motivation underlying Malaysia's sudden love affair with swap deals?

All this talk about swap deals has to be juxtaposed against the fast changing political landscape in Myanmar, the biggest source country of asylum seekers and refugees in Malaysia. Myanmar President Thein Sein seems to be a man in a hurry to set things right in his country. It is entirely possible the dream of a peaceful Myanmar may become a reality soon, and with that the unrelenting wave of asylum seekers and refugees is likely to recede.

When that happens, it would not matter why Malaysia courted asylum seekers and refugees, for by that time there would be no more of them knocking on her doors begging for entry. All that would be left would be the hollow cries of feigned love incessantly bouncing off the stained walls of selfishness, greed and xenophobia. 

Joachim Francis XavierJoachim Francis Xavier is a legally trained social activist who has worked for the Penang Catholic diocese for over ten years. He is chair of the Malaysian Catholic Bishops' Episcopal Commission for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerants. This article originally appeared in UCAN.

Topic tags: Joachim Francis Xavier, Malaysia Solution, refugees, asylum seekers



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Existing comments

Thank you for some insight into a puzzling charade of political manouvering. My respect for our government is eroding fast.

graham patison | 15 February 2012  

Well said, thank you. I think we the people need to pressure both the Government AND Opposition to deal with refugees as those in a humanitarian crisis, and not as political footballs. Surely there are sufficient people on both sides of politics who would work towards a bipartisan solution that does not include isolation and despair for those who have already suffered mightily.

Patricia | 15 February 2012  

And now how do we convince our appalling media to stop whining about the non-existent Malaysia deal everytime they write a word about refugees. Malaysia is still having round ups of refugees and they are not being registered like migrant workers are. So it comes down to the $300 million we promised.

Marilyn Shepherd | 15 February 2012  

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