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US pressure bodes ill for Burmese migrants

Thousands of undocumented migrants in Malaysia, many of whom are recognised refugees from Burma, are likely to be arrested in coming weeks following heavy pressure from the US to eradicate human trafficking.

Malaysia’s immigration department is to clamp down on the employers of undocumented migrants in the constructing and manufacturing sectors, charging them under the Anti-Trafficking Persons Act (APTA). According to local worker rights groups, thousands of migrant workers will be detained in the process without charges while those deemed victims of human trafficking will be deported to Burma.

The shift in policy, announced in January, comes after increased pressure from the US on Malaysian authorities to bring a halt to the selling of foreign nationals for commercial exploits, such as labour and prostitution. Since the US senate publicised a report on the issue in April 2009, human trafficking has been curbed massively. However, raids and arrests continue and are expected to soar once the upcoming crackdown is underway.

According to community-based organisations working with Burmese migrants, detention facilities and prisons across the nation are already severely overcrowded since detainees are no longer being deported via traffickers. It is estimated that there are currently between 4,000 and 5,000 Burmese men, women and children in detention, compared with around 2,000 in April and less than 3,000 in August.

Pranom Somwong, who has more than 10 years’ experience working with Burmese migrants in Thailand and Malaysia, is now coordinator of Workers Hub For Change (WH4C) and Network for Action on Migrants in Malaysia (NAMM), based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital.

“Before, [immigration] would deport migrants to the Thai border, where they would often pay and be freed, but now, because of the huge allegations about trafficking, migrants from Burma are piling up in detention centres and have to be there for many months.” she said.

“When migrants should come out of detention they have to spend 550 MYR [$US160] to go through the Burmese embassy and proceed back to Burma. If they don’t have money they end up in detention for a longer term.”

Many of these detainees have now been held for over six months, a few for more than two years. They reportedly live in sub-standard conditions and are often subject to abusive treatment by guards. Figures from August 2009 show that five out of the nation’s 13 detention centres were over-populated, some holding twice their capacity. Disease is widespread, and according to reports in the Malaysian media, deaths average as high as 18 per month. Local groups say that there are also high death rates among ex-detainees shortly after their release due to malnutrition and unhygienic living conditions.

Among those held are refugees who have been registered by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). They are indiscriminately arrested by Malaysian authorities although can often gain freedom more easily with the help of the UN agency.

In April 2009, Aung Soe Win, a registered refugee, was arrested along with his friend, Maung Twan, during two consecutive raids on a restaurant where they worked. Whilst being held at Putrajaya immigration office for an extended period, Maung Twan became severely ill and died.

“The place we were held was very bad,” Aung Soe Win explained following his release. “The toilet was always overflowing and there was no water for it or windows…Every three days, 50 of us would be given an hour to shower under two shower heads.

“After about a month, Maung Twan started to get sick. His legs became swollen and he was bleeding and coughing and vomiting a lot. Whenever the officers would pass by our cell we would ask for medical attention. We asked so many times that I cannot remember how many, but they only gave him treatment after he started showing signs of serious illness. At this point it was almost too late to help him.

“After being sick for two months he got so sick that he could not walk. The immigration officers became angry with him and asked why he would not walk. We showed them his legs and how sick he was. Two months later, they took him to hospital. Two weeks after that he died, at age 18.

“I was released by UNHCR shortly after his death. The officers told me that if I did not take his body he would be given to the dogs. This made me very angry. We were no criminals, we were just refugees and we were treated so badly in our country. We are not treated like humans. If we were, my friend would be alive right now.”

Among the deaths of Burmese detainees in 2009 a number are thought to have been caused by Leptopirosis, a waterborne disease, typically caused by exposure to animal urine, most commonly rat.

Speaking under anonymity, ethnic group-based refugee committees in Malaysia have told of severe mistreatment in the detention facilities. “Among the greatest concerns is the treatment of women and children,” said one group’s spokesperson. “Pregnant women are often arrested and then kept in detention under the same conditions as everybody else, and often forced to give birth in their cells. Females are not given any sanitary pads or tampons and many of them believe the presence of blood will bring demons and bad spirits so they live in fear. It’s horrific, there’s blood everywhere and the roofs are very low and it gets hot.”

Sexual abuse committed by the warders is also documented regularly, on both men and women. “At Semenyih [detention] camp, one young woman is taken once a week on rotation. They are gone for the night and often come back hurt and crying but never talk about their experiences…This also happens regularly to boys aged 14 to 16-years-old; they are attacked by both guards and older inmates.”

While using anti-trafficking legislation to dish out harsher sentences, Malaysian authorities’ primary goal appears to be an end to undocumented migration. Speaking to the Malaysian press in January this year, the department’s director-general, Datuk Abdul Rahman Othman, stated that linking the harbouring or hiring of illegals with APTA offences such as exploitation, debt bondage and slavery were the “drastic measures…needed to curb the number of overstayers in the country.” According to government there are currently around 1.8 million undocumented migrant workers nationwide.

The move is doubtlessly further influenced by pressure from the US. The senate report released in April 2009 condemned Malaysian officials for their involvement in the trade for profit. It stated that “in recent years” thousands of Burmese migrants have been passed “over to human peddlers in Thailand, representing a variety of business interests ranging from fishing boats to brothels.” It then recommended that the Malaysian authorities should investigate and prosecute cases of trafficking.

Despite previous denial of such allegations from home minister Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar, a full-blown investigation was shortly underway which led to nine arrests, including five immigration officials. Since then, there have been a number of further arrests linked to human trafficking, including the arrest of five Chinese nationals in Kuala Lumpur on 5 February.

While Malaysia has seen a decrease in trafficking, workers’ rights groups feel that a more holistic approach is needed as many more pressing issues affecting the lives of migrants are yet to be addressed.

According to Pranom Somwong, “a lot of information in [the US senate report] was correct and we need to respect the information from survivors in that report. But when you look at the impact of that report, you can see that the US policy is on law enforcement against trafficking and abolition of prostitution but they’re not interested in other things…They are not addressing the issue of forced migration and refugees from Burma but pick and choose issues that suit them, mainly focusing on the corruption of the authorities.”

“[They haven’t suggested] any appropriate mechanism or system to allow victims to stay or receive legal aid to sue the traffickers and receive compensation. [Those that are deemed victims of trafficking] will spend three months in shelter and then sent back to Burma.”

This is of particular concern to the tens of thousands of refugees fleeing conflict and persecution in Burma. At the end of January 2010, there were a total of 79,300 UNHCR-registered refugees in Malaysia, almost all of which are Burmese. However, Malaysia is not a party to the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and thus its law enforcers indiscriminately arrest all undocumented regardless of their status.

“As far as the Malaysian government is concerned, refugees are undocumented migrants and therefore the crackdown will affect them in the same way, although those with UNHCR status will be released eventually.” Pranom Somwong added.

On 1 February the government announced plans to issue ID cards to all UNHCR-registered refugees, a decision that has been welcomed by the agency.

According to UNHCR Malaysia’s external relations officer, Yante Ismail, “Proper documentation for refugees is essential to their protection…We look forward to further discussions to put into place with them a documentation system for refugees.”

No planned date for the move was announced but it is unlikely to go through in coming months and will have little or no effect on the arrests beginning next week. Law enforcers will firstly be focusing on the manufacturing and construction sectors but are expected to target the services sector too next month after Chinese New Year celebrations are over.

The effects of the crackdown are hard to predict. In 2005 and 2007, similar plans were announced that led to the arrest of tens of thousands of undocumented migrants. However, never has there been such attention given to employers, nor have anti-trafficking offences been such a key focus.

In Kuala Lumpur, refugee committees and worker rights groups alike are expecting the majority of those arrested to be migrants themselves, and have targeted employers to be limited to owners of small businesses. According to Pranom Somwong, “The anti-trafficking act is second on the agenda, aimed at appeasing the US war on human trafficking.”

JJ Kim works for the US-based Worldwide Impact Now charity