Monday, January 24, 2005

Migrant Workers In Malaysia

Britain is not the only country where the politics of immigration control is raising its ugly head. On Friday, the government here in Malaysia ordered thousands of migrant workers to leave the country by the end of the month. Last year the government offered an amnesty that allowed undocumented migrants to present themselves for deportation. The time period was extended twice but runs out next week.

Most of these workers come from neighbouring Indonesia (and a large proportion from disaster-struck Aceh) while there are also significant numbers from the Philippines, Thailand and elsewhere in the region. The immigration discourse in Malaysia is very little different from how it's played out in the rest of the world. Migrants - legal or otherwise - are welcomed at times of economic boom when they perform the dirty, degrading and dangerous jobs that Malaysians don't want to do. They are often treated appallingly by unscrupulous employers - including female domestic workers - with very little protective legislation in place. And then they become easy scapegoats for social ills. In the present context, migrants are being blamed for rising crime levels. Even refugees
from the conflict in Aceh or victims of human trafficking have been harrassed by the authorities. Sounds familiar doesn't it.

The particular nastiness in Malaysia has to do with the inhuman threats that are being made. As the BBC reports it, illegal migrants are facing
"fines, whipping and jail sentences" if they do not leave. The government is also saying it will "the mobilise up to 500,000 armed reservists and community volunteers to detain them". It is a license for vigilantism. And previous experiences of mass expulsions had some tragic consequences. According to LaShawn R. Jefferson, executive director of the Women’s Rights division of Human Rights Watch:
When Malaysia conducted mass deportations two years ago, dozens of migrant workers died of dehydration and disease while stranded in transit areas for months .... These deportations will only drive refugees and trafficking victims deeper underground and put them at greater risk of exploitation.
Much of this is bad enough. Human rights groups like Suaram and migrant support organisations try to generate a rational debate and humane policy on migration. But the government isn't listening. It has not even promised to wait for the post-disaster situation in Aceh to get back to some semblance of normality before deporting workers from there.

But the plight of migrant workers also speaks of the unacknowledged contribution that these new helots have made to the economic "miracle" in Malaysia that so many development economists admire. Much of this miracle has been manufactured on the back on these workers. Now the government, peddling an unscrupulous populism, wants to see the back of these workers - at least until the next construction boom comes along or more of the middle class need domestic help. It is one of the great injustices of our age.


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