Forgotten people with no homes or hope
Malaysia is a second home to Myanmar migrant workers, refugees and asylum seekers. In 2020, there were more than 550,000 Myanmar regular migrant workers and an estimated 250,000 are undocumented. Moreover, more than 154,880 Myanmar refugees and asylum seekers registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), including 22,470 Chin ethnic people who had escaped persecution and violence in their home state at the end of September 2021.
Despite offering cheap labour in Malaysia, unregistered migrant workers are typically arrested, imprisoned for three to six months, and held until deportation to their home country. On March 18, 2020, following increasing Covid-19 cases, the Malaysian government reportedly imposed a Movement Control Order (MOC) under the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases Act 1988 and the Police Act 1967, to halt the spread of Covid-19.
Soon after the MOC was announced, Malaysian authorities conducted extensive raids and detained unregistered migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers, including children.
For example, in the early phase of the crackdown in May 2020, 28,992 people had been arrested, with 15,792 being charged in custody amid the pandemic surge, difficulties in enforcing social distancing, and a poor sanitation situation.
Besides, after another raid and arrest that included 261 women and 98 children, the Asian Pacific Refugee Rights Network (APRRN) stated that those unregistered migrant workers were asylum seekers even though they were not formally registered with the UNHCR.
Consequently, between March and October 2020, at least 49 migrant workers from different countries have committed suicide in Malaysia due to economic hardship caused by Covid-19 and fear of being sent back home.
In July 2020, a migrant rights group and a Myanmar Embassy official also reported that at least six Myanmar irregular migrant workers in Malaysia committed suicide due to job losses and fear of imprisonment as Malaysian authorities continued to raid and arrest them.
In Myanmar, since Feb 1, 2021, the coup d'etat has escalated human rights violations and political instability.
Military personnel have killed hundreds of civilians, with 54 children thought to be among them, as reported by Unicef in May 2020. As of Oct 27, the military had killed 1,218 civilians, imprisoned 9281 people, and issued arrest warrants for 19,514.
The escalation of armed violence has already forced over 230,000 civilians to flee their homes.
After the Myanmar coup, the Malaysian government deported 1,086 Myanmar people who were held in custody since Feb 23, 2021.
Since August 2019, the Malaysian government has reportedly blocked the UNHCR from accessing detention centres to determine or verify those in need of international protection. Malaysian authorities said those deported have committed immigration offences and are not refugees.
On the contrary, the UNHCR reported that at least six had registered among those deported, and 17 minors with at least one parent remain in Malaysia. A day before the deportation of those held in custody, an irregular migrant woman from Kachin, Myanmar, committed suicide as she was frightened about her immigration status, was fearful of being deported and was struggling to survive during the Covid-19 outbreak. The safe return of those deported 1,086 to their homes is still unclear, and they are believed to be imprisoned in Myanmar.
Furthermore, on Oct 26, 2021 the Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO) reported that the Malaysian government had deported 178 Chin refugees and asylum seekers since Feb 1. Among them, 28 had either their refugee status verified or issued by the UNHCR and should have been protected until their refugee status was verified. The report also mentioned that 359 Chin refugees and asylum seekers had been detained. The vast majority of them were held in detention intermittently until a member of the Myanmar Embassy in Kuala Lumpur visited.
There are reasons that these refugees decided to take their own lives rather than being sent hack home. In Chin State, the Myanmar military launched a major attack; raided villagers, burned houses and churches in Chin State, resulting in civilians fleeing their homes. According to CHRO, over 40,000 Chin people had fled across the border to India.
Everyone wants to stay and live in their own country if the situation allows. No one wants to be an asylum seeker, refugee, or irregular or regular migrant worker in another country. Therefore, deporting Myanmar asylum seekers and refugees is inhumane and unacceptable during this time of political upheaval and increased danger to life under the military dictatorship.
Moreover, the Malaysian government should consider granting them amnesty and the right to work. According to the report, "The Economic Impact of Granting Refugees in Malaysia the Right to Work" prepared by the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs, a Malaysian libertarian think tank, these migrant workers will contribute up to RM3 billion (23 trillion baht) in annual GDP and RM50 million in taxes by 2024, as reported in April 2019 by the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs.
Tual Sawn Khai is a PhD candidate in sociology and social policy at the School of Graduate Studies, Lingnan University, Hong Kong.