A Growing Source of Fear for Migrants in Malaysia
By SETH MYDANS
Published: December 10, 2007
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — When his turn comes to stand watch, Kang Long posts himself at a window, peering into the dark streets outside the tiny apartment where his fellow migrant workers sleep 10 to a room.
“We always fear, especially at night,” he said. “Maybe there will be a raid. Where will we run? I worry for my wife and children. I’ve been thinking of moving to the jungle.”
Mr. Kang Long, 43, is an ethnic Chin refugee from Myanmar, one of as many as three million foreign workers whose labor on farms, factories and construction sites and in service industries supports the economy of this bustling Southeast Asian nation. About half are estimated to be here illegally.
Like foreign workers elsewhere, they are resented by many local people and demonized by politicians. Here in Malaysia they have become the targets of an expanding campaign of harassment, arrest, whippings, imprisonment and deportation.
In 2005, the government transformed a volunteer self-defense corps, created in the 1960s to guard against Communists, into a strike force deputized to hunt down illegal immigrants.
This force, called Rela, now numbers nearly half a million mostly untrained volunteers — more than the total number of Malaysia’s military and police in this nation of 27 million. Its leaders are armed and have the right to enter a home or search a person on the street without a warrant. By an official count, its uniformed volunteers carry out 30 to 40 raids a night.
As it takes over more police and prison duties, Rela is drawing the condemnation of local and foreign human rights groups. They accuse the volunteers, some as young as 16, of violence, extortion, theft and illegal detention.
“They break into migrant lodgings in the middle of the night without warrants, brutalize inhabitants, extort money and confiscate cellphones, clothing, jewelry and household goods, before handcuffing migrants and transporting them to detention camps for illegal immigrants,” Human Rights Watch said in a report in May.
They often fail to honor legitimate documentation and sometimes destroy documents in order to justify their actions, the group said.
In an interview, Rela’s director-general, Zaidon Asmuni, dismissed the concerns of human rights groups, saying the nation’s security was at stake, and demanded an aggressive defense. “We have no more Communists at the moment, but we are now facing illegal immigrants,” he said. “As you know, in Malaysia illegal immigrants are enemy No. 2.” Enemy No. 1, he says, is drugs.
Illegal immigrants, if caught, are brought before a judge for a trial. If convicted, they face up to five years in jail and a whipping, then deportation.
Some of the migrants, like Mr. Kang Long from Myanmar, are refugees registered with the United Nations, but Malaysia has not signed the United Nations refugee convention. So those migrants are also caught up in the sweeps.
According to the accounts of a dozen migrants, things can get even worse once they are deported. After serving time in a detention center, they say, many are taken to a no man’s land near the border with Thailand where human traffickers await their arrival.
If they can pay about $450, the migrants say, the traffickers will smuggle them back to Kuala Lumpur. If they cannot pay, they may be sold as laborers to fishing boats or forced into the sex trade.
Irene Fernández, a Malaysian who heads a local migrants’ rights group called Tenaganita, said victims sometimes called from the border begging for money to pay the traffickers. “It’s a conflict for us because we cannot support any form of trafficking,” she said. “At the same time, protection of life is equally important.”
The best she can honorably do, she said, is to notify the immigrant communities in Kuala Lumpur, where people often barely have enough money to feed themselves, and hope they can find the means to save their friends.
Terrorized by Rela, many of the migrants have left their apartments in the city and built shacks of leaves and branches in the surrounding jungle. But Rela pursues them there as well, the migrants say.
“Some jungle sites are periodically cleared by local authorities, the inhabitants are displaced, valuables taken away, and at times shelters are burned to the ground,” the medical aid group Doctors Without Borders said in a recent report.
Despite the criticisms, Rela — an acronym for the Malay words for People’s Volunteer Corps — has been expanding in numbers and in law enforcement powers. As of November, it had screened 156,070 people this year and had detained 30,332 for not having travel documents, according to the home affairs minister, Radzi Sheikh Ahmad.
In the interview, Mr. Zaidon, the Rela director general, said his organization was expanding so fast that it was impossible to train most of the volunteers or to carry out background checks before deputizing them to make arrests.
“We cannot train half a million just like that,” he said. “It’s an ongoing process. It will take time, 5 or 10 years.”
If Rela members were overly scrupulous about human rights, he said, they could not do their job. “To stop a person by the roadside, that is also against human rights,” he said. “But if you talk about human rights, you cannot talk about security.”
The volunteers cast a wide net as they stop and search people who look like Asian foreigners. Most migrant workers come from Indonesia, while others come from Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Vietnam as well as from Myanmar, formerly Burma.
In October, the Indonesian government protested when Rela detained an Indonesian student and the wife of an Indonesian diplomat. In both cases, Indonesia said, the victims produced documents that the volunteers ignored.
Most of Rela’s targets, though, are people like Ndawng Lu, 59, an ethnic Kachin refugee from Myanmar who shares an apartment with 20 other people.
Her neighbors fled and she remained alone when Rela made a daytime raid earlier this year, she said. “They shouted at me, ‘Where’s the money?’” she said. “I got down on my knees and begged them. ‘I don’t have any money.’ But they wanted money. They pulled stuff from under the bed. They looked here, they looked there. They opened all our bags.”
Her documents were in order, she said, and the search party left her with the mess.