Friday, 21 November 2014

Letter to the Editor: Assumptions about Migrant Workers Inaccurate and Unhelpful


Hassan Talib's claims on the reasons why migrant workers come to Malaysia and the Malaysian authorities' treatment of undocumented migrants ('Time To Flush Out Illegals', The Star, Nov 19) are rooted in neither facts nor reality.

His comment that undocumented migrants are attracted to Malaysia because of the "good and humane treatment" extended to undocumented migrants is way off the mark. Malaysia's disproportionately harsh treatment of undocumented migrants, which includes flogging and detention without trial under the Immigration Act 1959/1963, as well as poor detention conditions which leave detainees susceptible to communicable diseases, sexual and gender-based violence and other forms of harm, is a matter of grave concern and has been documented by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Suhakam, among others.

If the writer had ever set foot in an immigration detention camp, he would realise that the 'warm clothing' and 'proper documentation' he had waxed lyrical about do not exist, and any food given is inadequate and would not pass basic hygiene standards. SUARAM reported in 2008 that detainees are only given one cup or half a bottle of water a day. Instances of ill-treatment of detainees, deaths in detention and human trafficking by immigration officials are reported by both domestic and international media.

The UNHCR and other intergovernmental agencies have never "acknowledged Malaysia to be one of the few developing countries that honours and practices the UN Charter in taking care of illegal immigrants". Malaysia is not a signatory to the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, the 1990 International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families, or the 1951 Convention or 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. Malaysia does not distinguish between refugees and undocumented migrants, and routinely subject all undocumented migrants, including refugees, to arbitrary arrest, detention and physical punishment. Many undocumented migrants and refugees report of extortion, beatings and other harm in the hands of the Malaysian security forces, paramilitary volunteer corps and employers.

Far from being a "haven for illegal immigrants", Malaysia is actually ranked one of the worst places for migrant workers to work in by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) due to the lack of rights and protection for migrant workers, whether legal or undocumented. The recent deaths of 3 Bangladeshi workers in the MRT construction accident highlight the dangers that migrant workers face in their daily work due to the lack of legal protection and occupational health and safety measures.

The reasons why migrant workers continue to flock to Malaysia in search of jobs are grinding poverty, lack of economic opportunities, civil or political strife, and persecution in their home countries, as well as the untruthful promise of lucrative jobs by agents and employers who go to rural villages to lure young men to work abroad. Governmental corruption and lax border security make it easy for undocumented migrants to enter and remain in Malaysia, despite the threats to their lives, safety and freedom.

No rational person would actually believe that undocumented migrant workers in the agriculture sector are the cause of the illegal land clearing activities in Cameron Highlands. Farm owners prefer to hire migrant workers because they are willing to work long hours for pittance, without benefits and often without protective gear. It is ridiculous to think that the undocumented migrant farm workers are the ones with the prerogative and leverage to order the illegal clearing of land. Migrant farm workers merely follow the instructions of their employers, yet are made scapegoats in latest spate of landslides because Malaysians find it uncomfortable to think of their own countrymen as the culprits.

The environmental crisis in Cameron Highlands is nothing new, nor did it only begin with the arrival of undocumented migrant workers. Every few years, there will be reports of water pollution, use of banned pesticides and herbicides and rampant land clearing in Cameron Highlands, all stemming from the lack of monitoring and enforcement. The problems of landslides, pollution, lower agricultural yield and higher temperatures in Cameron Highlands are not going to go away with the arrest of migrant workers.

As long as the authorities are unwilling to monitor and enforce laws against the farms, as long as consumers are willing to settle for cheaper produce with a high pesticide residue load, as long as farm owners are not made responsible for the environmental health and safety of their farms, farm products and areas surrounding their farms, there can be no resolution to the problems plaguing Cameron Highlands.

As conscientious citizens, we need to take a long, hard look at ourselves, acknowledge our roles in the damage we've caused to the environment and the human rights abuses we've inflicted on migrant workers, assume responsibility and make reparations to finally put things right.


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