Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Immigration in Malaysia

Rights groups hit at Malaysia worker crackdown

By John Burton in Kuala Lumpur

Published: August 6 2007 17:31 | Last updated: August 6 2007 17:31

In the early hours of a recent Monday morning, trucks belonging to Malaysia’s People’s Volunteer Corps (Rela) suddenly surrounded a neighbourhood in the shadow of Kuala Lumpur’s Bukit Bintang area, home to some of the city’s glitziest hotels and shopping malls.

The Rela members, dressed in green uniforms and tan berets, banged on doors and ordered the occupants outside, many of them foreigners working in menial jobs at nearby hotels and restaurants.

The workers were ordered to produce documents proving that they were living legally in Malaysia and those who failed to do so were arrested and taken to a detention camp. More than 200 people were rounded up in the sweep and another one in Kuala Lumpur that night.

The raid was one of many that Malaysia has conducted against undocumented migrant workers since 2005 in a campaign criticised by human rights groups for illegal detentions, extortion, and excessive use of force against Malaysia’s estimated 3m foreign workers, a third of whom are considered illegal.

The campaign has become the focus of concern from diplomats who see in it the emergence of a potentially dangerous trend. “The crackdown has elements of xenophobia,” says one foreign diplomat in Kuala Lumpur.

Malaysia, one of south-east Asia’s richest countries, has in recent years become a magnet for illegal workers as it has suffered from a labour shortage and Malaysians have been unwilling to take on low-paid jobs working on palm oil plantations or construction sites.

The crackdown enjoys public support. Foreigners are blamed for rising crime rates, although police statistics show that foreigners account for only a small percentage of the crime committed in Malaysia. The crime issue is expected to be a main issue in a general election expected this year.

“The government needs to be seen to be doing something about the problem and foreigners are a convenient scapegoat,” says Kua Kia Soong, a sociologist who is also a director for local human rights group Suaram.

At the centre of the controversy is Rela, a territorial militia started in the 1960s when Malaysia and Indonesia were locked in armed confrontation. For many years, Rela had the benign reputation of a bumbling Malaysian “Dad’s Army”, whose primary role seemed to be helping with neighbourhood functions.

But in 2005, Rela was given new powers as Malaysia launched a campaign to expel illegal foreign workers. Rela’s 500,000 members were given the right to make arrests, conduct house searches and be armed in some cases.

“Most Rela members receive little training or vetting. It appears to attract some recruits who like the idea of the enhanced power that a uniform gives them,” says Yap Swee Seng, the executive director of Suaram.

Some workers detained claim that their residence papers were confiscated by Rela members. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Malaysia has protested that others arrested have been people it recognises as refugees, fleeing persecution in Burma. Malaysia is not a signatory to the UN refugee treaty, although it has provided temporary asylum to some who are scheduled to be resettled in other countries.

Those detained face up to five years in jail and six strokes of the cane before being deported. Human rights groups describe conditions in the detention camps as deplorable, with poor food and housing.

Suaram says it has received complaints about people under arrest being robbed of money, mobile phones and other possessions by Rela members or being forced to pay bribes to be released. New York-based Human Rights Watch recently described Rela as “a vigilante force” since its members are paid M$80 ($23, €17, £11) for each arrest, a system the government recently agreed to stop.

The government’s Human Rights Commission says its investigation into the complaints found that the problems have been exaggerated, although it concedes there have been isolated cases of abuses.

The government has also defended its use of Rela, which it says provides crucial support to an immigration department that would otherwise be overwhelmed by the illegal worker problem. In addition, Rela is seen as an important part of Malaysia’s national defence force.

But critics charge the campaign has been driven by political exigencies and is loaded with nationalist and racial undertones in spite of the fact that most migrant workers in Malaysia are Indonesians, who are culturally similar to ethnic Malays.

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