The limits of compassion

Faisal and I sit at a roadside stall in Kuala Lumpur, eating chicken fried rice and discussing the recent refugee boat arrivals on the west coast. It’s early 2015.

This is not the first time a refugee crisis has washed up on the country’s shores: older Malaysians still recall the arrival of tens of thousands of Vietnamese boat people in the 1970s. The boats were initially pushed back out to sea, until, after increasing pressure from the international community, the Malaysian government established a refugee camp on the tiny island of Pulau Bidong. Less than one square mile in size, the island was deemed to have a capacity of 4500 – at its peak, it housed over 40,000 refugees. The detention of Vietnamese refugees set in motion an uneasy working relationship between the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Malaysian government, a relationship that remains strained. Then, as now, the Malaysian public was neither well informed about the crisis nor particularly engaged in its resolution (to be fair, the same could be said in many countries).

The Malay Archipelago, which stretches from southern Thailand down to Indonesia and across to Papua New Guinea, has always been at the centre of human mobility. Regional conflicts and economic pressures have long forced people to cross borders in search of a better life, with many heading for the relative safety and stability of Malaysia. But the country is far from the sanctuary dreamed of by most refugees and migrants.

Malaysia’s domestic politics tend to focus on managing the country’s culturally and linguistically diverse population. Migrants are largely tolerated as an economic necessity – that is, a temporary labour force vital to Malaysia’s prosperity for Malaysians. This inward-looking attitude has resulted in millions of migrants living on temporary visas, or residing in the country illegally. They are often blamed for socials ills, serving as a convenient distraction from the race-based politics that continue to divide Malay, Chinese and Indian Malaysians.

‘It’s a matter for the international community, for the countries that take refugees, like Australia, the US and Europe,’ Faisal tells me. He works for a large bank and knows a bit about the refugee situation in South-East Asia. His main concern, however, is domestic politics – the corruption scandals and political infighting that dominate debates. Prime Minister Najib Razak has (so far) weathered a major scandal in which the country’s government-run investment arm, 1Malaysia Development Berhad, was allegedly used to funnel substantial amounts of state funds to his private accounts. Faisal also worries about the economy: the global financial crisis has hit manufacturing hubs like Malaysia hard, and many are feeling the pinch. This leaves little sympathy for the millions of undocumented migrants, most of whom come from nearby countries like Bangladesh, Indonesia and Myanmar.

For Faisal, refugees are a Western problem, something for richer countries to worry about. He points out that Malaysia is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention and therefore is under no obligation to protect them. The Malaysian government contends that the convention is Western-centric; rather than accede to such a treaty, it opts to help displaced peoples using its discretionary powers. There are numerous examples of this happening: over 10,000 Cham Muslim refugees were resettled to Malaysia in the 1980s, several hundred Muslim Bosnians were given temporary protection during the Yugoslav wars and several thousand Acehnese were allowed to stay and work after the tsunami and civil war in the early 2000s.

In Faisal’s eyes, Malaysia already shoulders a large burden: it currently hosts over 150,000 UNHCR-registered refugees, as well as many thousands who are unregistered. Like most Malaysians, he sees this as an international problem requiring an international solution – global agencies (such as the UNHCR) and regional heavyweights (such as Australia) need to support refugees while they reside in Malaysia and, ultimately, resettle them in other countries.

In Malaysia, refugees aren’t the emotive issue they are in Australia. Most Malaysians are preoccupied with economic uncertainty and threats to civil liberties. And they are right to be concerned: the country’s increasingly authoritarian government has cracked down on opposition, resurrected indefinite detention, arrested journalists and engaged in alleged fraud and vote-buying.

This highlights a key problem for Australia and its nominal status as a human rights defender. Australia’s draconian border policies – which now enjoy bipartisan support – rely on regional neighbours being compliant partners. The payoff for compliance has, in part, been silence on human rights abuses in countries crucial to the Pacific Solution II (which prevents refugees arriving in Australia by sea by turning back boats or by detaining asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island). Malaysia plays its part by stopping further refugee flows entering the region: push-backs in the Andaman Sea, a stricter visa regime and allowing Australian police to be involved with passport control at airports. While Australia’s detention of refugees in offshore camps seeks to deter, the border-policing cooperation between Australia and Malaysia aims to prevent refugees entering the region in the first place.

The Australian government’s rhetoric about border protection has been taken up by Malaysia, particularly in relation to the hilly, forested border with Thailand. One Malaysian government minister recently proposed an enormous border wall that would rival Donald Trump’s audacious plans. Goods and people have long moved across this border, both legally and illegally. It’s here that the majority of undocumented migrants cross into Malaysia by foot. Some do so with the help of people smugglers, who guide them across the border for an agreed fee. But many are trafficked and subjected to ransom negotiations, or forced to work in slave-like conditions for prolonged periods (on Thai fishing trawlers, for example). In May 2015, horrendous human trafficking camps, where rape, torture and murder have been reported, were found on both sides of the border.

Those coming from further afield are forced to make the treacherous journey across the Andaman Sea. The boats sometimes go missing, leaving family and friends unsure of the fate of loved ones. Other times, the people smugglers demand more than the agreed fare, forcing their victims to work for their freedom.

The majority of people making this journey are Rohingya refugees from Myanmar. The Rohingya, a Muslim minority, have been rendered stateless in their own country: their movements are tightly controlled, they are denied the right to vote or run for office, they are unable to attend schools or access support services, and their personal lives are governed by the state (including restrictions on who they can marry and how many children they can have). The UN has described the Rohingya as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world, and some observers have labelled the situation as nothing short of genocide.

In late 2012, large-scale mob violence – encouraged by the Bamar-dominated Buddhist government – saw scores of Rohingya killed or displaced; many survivors were forced into grim internment camps, while others crossed the border into Bangladesh or made their way towards Thailand and Malaysia. Since then, more and more Rohingya have fled systemic violence and persecution. According to UNHCR estimates, more than 25,000 people (including some Bangladeshi migrants) left by boat between January and March 2015 alone.

Mohammad is one such refugee. He made the perilous journey because Rakhine State, home to the majority of Myanmar’s Rohingya, was no longer safe for him. Mohammad tells me how a mob set fire to his village – he ran towards the sea, leaving his parents and siblings behind. Some of his family were beaten. They remain in the village under surveillance.

In April 2015, Mohammad came across a boat heading to Malaysia – a preferred destination for Rohingya for decades – and decided to jump on board. He didn’t really think about the journey, how long it would take, or how much it would cost. Many Rohingya pay little or no deposit to leave Myanmar. Instead, they have to work off debts to the smugglers, or have family and friends pay a ransom. Mohammad had no time to ask questions.

It didn’t take long for things to catch up with him. The boat was trapped at sea for two months with few supplies. What Mohammad didn’t know was that the Thai navy had stepped up patrols; the smugglers were waiting it out in deep water, many miles off the coast. After this harrowing ordeal, Mohammad was detained in a makeshift camp in a southern Thai forest. His captors made him call friends and family in Malaysia to pay for his freedom. An uncle did so, and within a couple of weeks Mohammad was in Kuala Lumpur.

Mohammad and many like him hope to stay in Malaysia. They see it as a safe place where they can freely practise their religion and earn a reasonable income in the informal economy (as labourers in construction, road maintenance and the wholesale markets). Six days a week, Mohammad cuts the grass along major highways around Kuala Lumpur, a job that earns him around A$300 a month. He is always on the lookout for a better job, having been warned about unscrupulous employers by fellow refugees. The money he now earns is crucial for his family: he remits part of his earnings back to Myanmar, and funds others to make the journey to join him. But while life in Malaysia is preferable to life in Myanmar, it’s not without hardship: harassment from the police and local authorities is common (including bribery, excessive rent-seeking and robbery) and a lack of official documentation makes it almost impossible to secure long-term employment or to access education, healthcare and other services. Most migrants and refugees are forced to work poorly paid, often hazardous jobs.

The Malaysian government is unwilling to regularise the significant population of undocumented workers – a population that includes refugees – because it would diminish its ability to earn money from legal migrant labour. Foreign labour contracts are big business in Malaysia, and refugees (alongside other undocumented migrants) are regarded as a cheap labour force necessary for the Malaysian economy to keep moving, especially in times of global economic turmoil. It’s these underpaid and often exploited workers who undertake the nation’s least desirable work: they sweep the city’s streets by hand, collect the garbage, serve customers in restaurants and do much of the heavy lifting in the construction and manufacturing sectors – all for meagre pay (usually $A250–300 per month).

Grace is one such refugee worker. We meet at the open-air restaurants where she works, on a characteristically humid evening. The restaurant is in the Golden Triangle, Kuala Lumpur’s tourism mecca, and crowds of people are bustling past. Every now and then she steps forward with a bunch of menus, luring the tourists into the restaurant. She has been a waitress for several months and earns enough to live in an apartment above the restaurant, a space she shares with three families and seven colleagues.

Grace is from Chin state in Myanmar, where the majority of people are Christian. Like other religious and ethnic minorities – Myanmar is one of South-East Asia’s most diverse countries – the Chin endured widespread oppression under the military junta.

It’s a slow night, and Grace periodically checks her smartphone for Facebook and WhatsApp messages. This is her main way of keeping in contact with family and friends back home, as well as with those living in India, the United States and here in Malaysia. One of her best friends was recently resettled to Australia. She tries to recall the place name: Melbourne, Dandenong, Great Ocean Road … somewhere nice. She shows me pictures of Australian suburban life: a Chin family stands proudly in front of a neat single-storey house, a car parked in the driveway. The picture represents everything Grace is hoping for while she waits in limbo.

Last year, the UNHCR informed Grace that Chin refugees are no longer being resettled, that it’s relatively safe for her to return to Myanmar. Indeed, since the 2015 election there have been high hopes for the country’s ethnic minorities. The National League for Democracy now shares power with the military junta, and one of the vice-presidents is now a Christian Chin. There is also now an expectation, both from neighbouring countries and international agencies, of voluntary repatriations. Grace is not yet willing to accept the UNHCR recommendations. She has a steady job that allows her to provide financial support to her family, and she wants to wait and see how the political transition in Myanmar plays out.

Another of Grace’s friends has returned home and opened a shop with her savings from Malaysia. So far, Grace says, things have gone well for her friend. This is an encouraging sign, and Grace thinks regularly about reuniting with her family. She is clearly torn between the two lives her friends have embraced – one back in Myanmar and one in Australia. Grace tells me she feels trapped by her decision to come to Malaysia: ‘Here, there is nothing. We are nothing. We can work and work and earn money, but we aren’t accepted.’ She now faces a tough decision: remain as an undocumented migrant waiting for a future that may never come, or return to an uncertain future in Myanmar. Both scenarios make her feel like her dreams of resettlement in the West are slipping away.

Most refugees in Malaysia live without a sense of a future. Prevalent discourse recognises them as foreigners (seen through the prism of the nation-state logic) and as a temporary labour force (capitalist logic). In both framings, they are positioned as a threat to Malaysians as citizens and workers. The limits of compassion are easily reached because the logic applied focuses on the function of the refugee. Thus, they are seen solely as an undocumented alien or as an undocumented worker. The former is easily manipulated politically as a scapegoat, while the latter is easily exploited as cheap labour.

And this is where Malaysia and Australia do have something in common. In both countries, the government and many ordinary citizens perceive refugees as a ‘radical other’ – the classic scapegoat onto whom we place the burdens of conflict and our innermost anxieties. ‘Stop the boats’ is a rallying cry that has been happily adopted by many South-East Asian nations – Thailand has been pushing refugee boats back to sea for years – and the effects of such policies on those fleeing persecution will no doubt haunt us for some time.

Indeed, until leaders from across the region recognise the root causes for displacement and address them forcefully, not much will change for Grace, Mohammad or Faisal. All three have been let down by their respective leaders and by the international community. Australia and ASEAN have been unwilling to show leadership by negotiating an effective response to the refugee crisis. First and foremost, a comprehensive settlement plan is needed for Myanmar’s ethnic minorities, including the Rohingya. Myanmar continues to be the country of origin for the majority of regional refugees, especially those living in Thailand and Malaysia. Political and economic reforms, alongside recognition of the large diaspora now living in exile, are required. The UNHCR desperately needs additional funding to support the eventual repatriation of hundreds of thousands of refugees. Currently, there is no financial aid available to those willing to return to Myanmar. Given that most no longer have a home, land or livelihood, there is little to return to.

Mohammad has heard stories of another way out, one that is dangerous but potentially very rewarding: travelling by boat from Indonesia to Australia. He has been tempted to join friends on this journey, but the traumatic memory of his journey to Thailand has so far deterred him. ‘Also,’ he adds, ‘the way to Australia is closed at the moment’ – this is how Operation Sovereign Borders is frequently described to me – ‘but when it reopens, who knows, maybe I will try.’

All names in this essay are pseudonyms.


Artwork by Brent Stegeman.



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Gerhard Hoffstaedter

Gerhard Hoffstaedter is an Australian Research Council senior research fellow in anthropology at the University of Queensland. He conducts research with refugees in South-East Asia and Australia. He is the author of Modern Muslim Identities: Negotiating Religion and Ethnicity in Malaysia and co-editor of Urban Refugees: Challenges in Protection, Services and Policy.

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