The Realities of Refugees and Asylum Seekers from Burma in Malaysia
Malaysia has not ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention nor the 1967 Protocol. Under the Malaysian Immigration Act 1959/63 (Act 155), refugees and asylum seekers are designated as “illegal migrants” and may be subject to arrest, detention, punishment (including whipping), and deportation. Historically, the focus has been on reducing the number of irregular persons through large-scale (and often violent) ‘crackdowns’, where the aim is to arrest, detain and deport undocumented migrants and refugees. Arrested refugees are often unable to understand the charges read to them and secure appropriate legal assistance.
Life for refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia is extremely difficult. Unable to work legally in the country, and with limited access to basic services (health care, education or legal), they are vulnerable to poverty, exploitation and health problems. Refugees and asylum seekers scrape by on earnings from work in low paying, unskilled and often part-time/casual jobs in the plantation, construction, manufacturing, or service sectors. Even among those who are employed, poverty and indebtedness are endemic. Many earn far less than the government-determined poverty-line income (PLI) of RM 800 per household per month.
Forced labor and human trafficking are serious concerns for this community. Moreover, without the protection that legal status provides, refugees and asylum seekers are afraid to come forward to authorities because they fear arrest and detention.
Refugees’ and asylum seekers’ dire living circumstances, coupled with aggressive, punitive approaches by the state as well as everyday experiences of discrimination by non-state actors, creates an extremely poor environment for refugees in Malaysia. Furthermore, these adverse life events, combined with the persecution they faced in their country of origin increases their vulnerability to a number of health problems, including infectious diseases, psychological problems and under-management of chronic conditions.
Refugee Health and Mental Health
Traumatic pre-flight, flight and post-flight conditions at the country of asylum are precipitating factors to mental ill health for refugees and asylum seekers. HEI data at 30 June 2016 revealed that among its patients, 42% Sri Lankans, 25% Burmese, 8% Afghans and 8% Pakistani suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Of this, more than half (63% of patients with PTSD symptoms) have experienced torture. These patients require multiple and intensive interventions that the weak and punitive legal, health and social protection space in Malaysia cannot provide.
In principle, government hospitals in Malaysia are open and available to refugees and asylum seekers, but evidence collected by HEI shows that refugees and asylum seekers experience substantial barriers to accessing health care in Malaysia.
The cost of health care is unaffordable for many. This is particularly the case if treatment costs are high and the individual is an asylum seeker (asylum seekers cannot take advantage of the 50% discount off the foreigner rate that registered UNHCR refugees receive).
Concerns around arrest and detention are another problem, as refugees and asylum seekers are afraid to travel to seek medical services. Many refugees live outside the city, some in jungle sites, so transportation and security concerns are significant.
Language differences and a lack of information about health services also impact refugees’ ability to access services. Refugees have also cited the poor quality of treatment and discrimination they experience at both public and private health facilities as reasons for not seeking medical treatment when needed. Evidence also showed that refugees delayed seeking medical treatment until the situation became serious, thereby risking their health and increasing their need for hospitalization.
Forced labor is a situation currently affecting 12.3 million people worldwide. It is defined by the International Labor Organization (ILO) as “all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily.” Simply put, there are two elements to forced labor: 1) the work or service must be exacted under menace of a penalty; and 2) it is undertaken involuntarily.
Although almost 9.5 million people are trapped in forced labor in the Asia-Pacific region, the phenomenon of forced labor is not well understood in our societies. Frequently, forced labor operates in a manner closely connected with local context and is therefore less noticeable for most members of that society. In Malaysia, a combination of shortcomings in both immigration and labor laws has created dangerous circumstances, exposing this vulnerable population to forced labor.
HEI’s 2012 research on refugees and asylum seekers from Myanmar in the Klang Valley revealed that one third of the research sample population has experienced forced labor. Playing into their fear of authorities because of the lack of documentation, employers and agents have used the threat of reports to the police and/or immigration as a way to force them into underpaid and exploitative labor. The negative impact on their well-being is demonstrated by more than 60% of the sample population who display symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress. This is more than twice the rate of the general population.
The graveness of the situation cannot be under-emphasized. In Malaysia, practices of forced labor can last for years without being detected. Survivors rarely report their experience for a variety of reasons: they don’t know where to go; they are too afraid to speak out; they fear deportation or imprisonment; or they are simply resigned to accept forced labor as a norm rather than a violation of their fundamental human rights. One man HEI interviewed said simply, “I can’t sit around waiting for the good one. I don’t want to wait for the job.” Basic survival—the need for food and shelter for themselves and their families—has left them with little choice but to take up dismal jobs, often entering into situations of forced labor fully aware of the risks and dangers.
HEI is seeking to shed light on their experience, and to understand their plight as persons—not just as faceless workers. Society’s ignorance of forced labor situations has undoubtedly contributed to the continuation of these practices. HEI hopes that the witness accounts will show that allowing refugees and asylum seekers to work legally will protect them, improve their well-being, and demonstrate that the recognition of their status as refugees will make a whole world of difference.
Health Equity Initiatives (HEI) utilizes research-based evidence for its advocacy efforts. Refugees and asylum seekers’ stories are documented for this purpose.
Forced labor in the Malaysian manufacturing sector
James is a 29-year old ethnic Chin from Myanmar, who came to Malaysia around 2010. Upon arrival, and needing money to survive, he went to an agent who found him a job in a furniture factory. He was promised RM38 per day, but received much less: “There were cuts… for agent’s fee […] for water and electricity at the dormitory… we received only RM18 per day in the end,” James explained.
James has not received a refugee card from the UNHCR. He only has a card from the Chin refugee organization. “Even that card, they took it. They knew we were afraid to go outside without the cards. We were worried we would be arrested.” James said the employers did not say why the cards could not be kept by the workers themselves. “Sometimes we wanted to go the market and buy some vegetables, but when we went to the boss and asked for our cards, he said nothing and refused to give them to us.” The workers were then confined to the factory complex, and only went back and forth between the workplace and the dormitory nearby.
The factory workers faced very long working hours. They started at 8:00 am and worked very late, “Sometimes 11:30 pm. Usually 11:00 pm.” At work, they were always closely watched. He explained that the boss’ trusted supervisor “always followed us and watched us when we were working […] always searching who among us seemed not focused. If he saw someone as much as dared to look outside the window, he would scold that person. We didn’t even dare to look at each other.” Although he did not understand Malay, he could tell that there was a lot of profanity directed at the workers: “He always seemed so angry. He didn’t use a normal voice.”
The long working hours exhausted the workers. If a worker felt unwell and was not able to work overtime, the supervisor would go to the dormitory and force the person to work. James said that although many workers could not bear the tiredness, they were too afraid to ask for rest days. “One person once asked for a day off so he could rest, but the supervisor wouldn’t let him and scolded him. None of us dared to ask again after that.”
Like James, the ethnic Chin refugee, Simon (28), was also brought to work at a factory in the Klang area by an agent. “The agent said I was going to work in a restaurant, but instead I was brought to a glove factory.” Simon mentioned that agents often use deception. They put undocumented workers in jobs which are completely unlike those they promise, and also cheat with the wage payment. “The agent […] often threatened not to give us our salaries. If we refused the work he wanted us to do, he threatened to call the police.”
Simon was also confined to the factory’s compound day and night. “There were guards at the entrance gate. […] If we went out, there would be a 15-days wage penalty.” Simon mentioned that since they couldn’t go out, they were provided with food. “But we were charged much higher than market price. For a bag of rice that is about RM15, we had to pay RM36.” Physical violence also occurred in the factory. Simon recounted how “they beat up the migrant workers when they talked back. We saw what they did to the Indonesians and didn’t dare to say anything no matter how badly we were treated.”
At the factory, Simon was always made to work unpaid overtime. “The boss also ordered us to work on the weekends.” After five months, he left. “I couldn’t take it anymore. I was simply too exhausted. Also, it was a glove factory and they used animal hide. The stench was unbearable.”
Despite his terrible experience in Malaysia, James said he tried his best to stay positive and keep on his best behavior. He is often tempted to drink to relieve stress, but “no matter how badly I feel, I stay away from alcohol […] I don’t want the Malaysians to think badly of us. I just pray to relieve my stress.” He also relies on the company of his friends, fellow Chin asylum seekers. The bookish, introverted Simon, meanwhile, does not really share his difficulties with anyone. He reads Bible related books and prays, but sometimes feels melancholic.
Forced labor in the Malaysian construction industry
In Malaysia, many male Myanmar refugees and asylum seekers do construction work. One reason for this is because it is easier to find jobs there with fake documents. Noah, a 41-year old ethnic Chin refugee from Myanmar has been working construction jobs for almost two years using a photocopy of someone else’s documents. “Every time my friends and I heard there’s a new documented worker who arrived, we would tell our agent to make photocopies of that person’s work permit,” he said. Up to fifteen people can be using copies of the same permit.
HEI research revealed that work in the construction is highly stressful. Refugees and asylum seekers working in this sector show higher levels of stress compared to others in different sectors. Construction jobs are demanding: workers typically have to work long hours and do extensive, manual labor. According to David (47), also an ethnic Chin, on average they have to work for 10 hours every day, without being paid for overtime. Thomas (23), another Chin refugee, said that he would sometimes be forced to work until 2:00 am. In addition, ‘easier’ tasks are often given to locals, or documented migrant workers. Noah said that at his workplace, the most taxing job—digging the ground—is never assigned to the documented workers. “There were 4 or 5 Indonesians, but when we asked them to help digging, they said it is not their job.”
From Noah’s account, we can observe how documentation status provides a context to forced labor, as those who are with proper documents are less exposed to difficult situations.
Physical violence at construction sites is notoriously prevalent. David recalled that he was beaten once because he was considered slow at work. David explained that he was feeling weak because the boss did not let him stop for a meal or a drink. “He also threw stones at me, pushed me and shouted at me.” Thomas, meanwhile, is deeply traumatized by the humiliating treatment he received at work. He remarked that the boss would pull him by the hair in front of all the other workers whenever he made a mistake.
One element of forced labor which is very clearly marked in the construction sector is the withholding of wages. The nature of this sector helps to explain why this withholding of wage is very common. The main difference with other sectors is how construction jobs are temporary projects, conducted in relatively open spaces, which makes it easier for the worker to escape. Thus withholding wages becomes the only effective means to prevent workers from leaving.
Refugees and asylum seekers from Myanmar are usually promised a daily wage of RM30, but in reality they typically receive far less. Samuel (39), also from Chin state, astutely commented, “I think my boss controlled me by not giving full wages. When he handed me my wages, he kept some amount, that’s how he controlled me and kept me working for him. He didn’t want to give me my entire wage when I asked.” Refugees and asylum seekers usually endure the forced labor because they fear they will lose their wages if they run away. As Noah said, “The boss didn’t want to give us the wage and kept it from us, so we had to work until he agreed to pay our wages although we were not willing to keep working.” David added quite simply, “I would lose the remainder of my wage if I ran away.”
Living through the cruel circumstances of forced labor in the construction sector has deeply affected many refugees and asylum seekers. Thomas is a tense and nervous figure – when we talked to him he tended to avoid eye contact and often responded to questions only with a bitter smile. Samuel, on the other hand, said his forced labor experience fueled him with a lot of anger and resentment. Refugees and asylum seekers from Myanmar commonly report that the difficulties of living in Malaysia, – with little or no protection from exploitation and violence – generate a sense of loneliness and heartbreak in them.
Forced labor in the Malaysian service industry
Refugees and asylum seekers from Myanmar are most likely to work in the service industry—based on the HEI survey, 35% work in this sector. Restaurant work is the most widely reported, although there are also some who have worked in hotels, usually in housekeeping.
John is a 23-year old ethnic Karen from Myanmar. He came to Malaysia around 2009, and has since been working in restaurants around Klang Valley. John took up his first restaurant job about three months after his arrival. His main job was to wash the dishes, but he also had to do other cleaning chores at the restaurant, including cleaning the toilets. “I washed and cleaned everything they ordered me to.” He kept the job for about 8 months until he went to try to register for a UNHCR refugee card. “I was scolded afterwards. The boss didn’t want me to register with the UN—he just wouldn’t allow it. Some employers are afraid of the UN card. They don’t like it if we are registered with the UN refugee agency and have refugee cards.”
At present, John works in a food court in Sunway. On average, he works about 12 to 13 hours every day. The employers do provide him with three meals daily, but they take fresh ingredients from the fridge and cook for themselves— “we are given stale food.” John mentioned that he does get one day off each week, but to his dismay it is not on Sunday so he is not able to attend church.
John remarked that there are also documented workers from Vietnam where he works. John mentioned that these workers do not get scolded as much as the workers from Myanmar. John said it is the verbal abuse that hurts him most. “The employers often pick on us, saying bad things about us, saying that we are lazy people, things like that.” John said his working experience thus far has made him feel downhearted. “I feel ashamed for being here, I feel like my presence in Malaysia is a bother, it’s like we have interrupted the lives of people here. It’s not that I want to disturb the Malaysians. If I could, of course I would choose to work in my own country.”
Confinement is also found in the service sector, and can be done by agents. San (32), an ethnic Burmese asylum seeker, recalled how he was once confined by agents who promised him a job at the hotel. “He kept me at a house with other people from Myanmar and Indonesia, including 3 women. We were locked in when they went out. The agent said he would give me a job if available. There were three guards in the agent’s house.” Workers are usually shuttled back and forth from the restaurant to their living quarters. John is housed in a place he refers to as a “hostel,” where he is not allowed visitors. He has to share a small room with five other people.
Similarly, Mei (22)—an ethnic Shan—was also confined at the agent’s place. Every day, she would be brought by the agent to a restaurant where she was put to work as a dishwasher. She was never allowed to go out, and only knew the restaurant and the agent’s place. “I only knew work, and off-work. Work, and off-work. I just followed the agents, wherever they took me to, I followed. I didn’t think of disobeying. If I didn’t follow… I don’t know what would happen.”
John recounted that his prayers were important in helping him to cope, but says, “I am usually in tears after I say my prayers.” He also gets by with support from some friends – fellow Karen refugees in Malaysia. Mei relies mostly upon herself, but feels alone and without anyone to turn to. Trying to avoid feeling upset or distressed, she says that she tries to “suppress her heart,” because crying only makes her feel worse. She also reminds herself that it could be worse, “because I still have my legs and my hands. […] There are people who are richer, they face more challenges. And then there are also people who are worse off, those who have it worse than me. I tell myself don’t think of bad things… think of happy things.”
Experiencing forced labor is a traumatic and stressful experience. Those who have to work in these conditions are able to cope, and keep their humanity, but the toll on their mental health is evident.
Witness accounts: Forced labor in Malaysian plantations
Agriculture is perhaps one work sector that needs to be paid greater attention with regards to forced labor. Although the number of refugees and asylum seekers working in this sector is not as high as those working in other sectors, HEI’s research shows that those who have worked in plantations show more significant symptoms of anxiety compared to other sectors. The most worrying aspect about forced labor in the plantations is that it can often last for years, longer than in other sectors. Plantations are usually located in remote places, making it easier for employers to confine workers without being noticed. Forced labor with physical confinement is probably the worst – it is it is very difficult for victims to look for help and employers can impose more penalties.
Kyawt is a 24-year old ethnic Chin refugee from Myanmar and a mother of two who first came to Malaysia in 2007 . Through friends, she found a job at a flower farm in Cameron Highlands, unaware that she would have to spend two years confined there. There were many workers of different nationalities at the farm, “Bangladeshis, Nepalese and Indonesians… they were allowed to go outside of the compound, because they had passports.” The undocumented Burmese were specifically ordered never to go out. “The boss locked the gate, he’s not nice,” Kyawt recalled. “He wouldn’t even allow family visits and deducted my salary when my brother came to the farm and tried to see me.”
Kyawt had long working days of up to twelve hours, seven days a week, with a wage of only RM14 per day. She was never given off-days even when she was sick. “The boss and his children were bad people. They shouted at us and always threatened to cut our wages when we made mistakes.” Kyawt said she felt very sad during the time she was in forced labor, but she felt like she had no choice, “Sometimes I wanted to quit. But […] I asked myself, if there’s no job, should I live unemployed?”
Like Kyawt, Min was also confined in the plantation where he worked. He previously worked at a restaurant, but his boss decided that he was not presentable to work there. He then sold Min to a plantation owner in Alor Setar for RM1,000. “I was not aware that I had been sold [but] the boss always said, ‘I have paid RM1,000 to your boss, so you must work for a year. Until then, you cannot quit.” He never received any wage. “While I was there, the compound was locked and […] surrounded by sharp metal wires. [It] was very remote and I couldn’t even see any vehicles around. I couldn’t go anywhere …” As in Kyawt’s case, other documented workers were able to move freely. The plantation owner threatened that if Min ever tried to run away, he would call the Immigration authorities to arrest him.
Min worked 11 hours a day, even when it rained. He was given only two meals every day, usually only rice and leftover vegetables from the plantation. “The boss gave me a container for me to collect rainwater for bath and other purposes.” His main job was to spray insecticide, but he was not given a face mask. He even had to use clothes left by previous workers because the boss refused to “spend more money” on him.
Min said that the experience was really hard for him. “At that time, I couldn’t even see myself as a human. The situation really drove me crazy and I felt like I wanted to die.” It was also during this time that he heard about the deaths of his mother and younger sister. “There was no one for me to speak to. The pain I felt was unspeakable.”
Although he eventually managed to escape from the plantation compound, Min said that he continues to feel gripped with fear. “I don’t feel safe. I always feel like the boss will come and do something to me.” There is never a night when he can sleep well and he always wakes up startled. He has trouble distinguishing dreams from reality. “When I sleep it doesn’t feel like sleep, and everything I have experienced comes to my head.”
Min’s testimony is sadly common, showing how hurtful effects on mental health last long after experiencing forced labor.