Uncertain fate for many migrant workers
WHEN the news finally made its way to her home in Tanintharyi Region, Daw Phyu Khine knew she had to go to Yangon. Having no better plan, she went out to Yangon Airport and waited in the arrivals hall on August 8, hope and anxiety vying in her face.
The hopes were dashed, however. Her son was not on the flight bringing back the migrant workers from Malaysia, from where they had been rescued. Now the waiting, and the anxiety, will have to go on a lot longer.
“My son was not included [in the first batch]. I hope he will be soon,” she said, looking on as those who did return queued up before the immigration counter. To be sure, though, she waited until the last of them, formalities completed, left the airport.
Her son went to Malaysia to look for a job. She lost touch with him about two years ago after hearing he’d been detained for illegally overstaying his visa.
“One of his friends told me. But I didn’t know how to contact him,” she said. “I came to the airport today on the off-chance of seeing him because I saw the news about the repatriation,” she said.
Many people are in the same position as Daw Phyu Khine. According to the Myanmar Overseas Employment Agencies Federation, about 4000 Myanmar migrant workers are sent legally to Malaysia every month, nearly 50,000 a year. The number of workers who go illegally is thought to be higher. Many of them are arrested, imprisoned and then sent to immigration camps around Malaysia.
And many of those who started out legal become illegal because of the cost and complexities of renewing their status. Complaints have also surfaced about cheating by agencies that are supposedly helping them with the paperwork.
Ko Kyaw Zin, a senior member of the Malaysia-based Kepong Free Funeral Service, said many legal workers became illegal are then detained. “We call them ghosts because their existence is invisible,” he said.
The detained workers have to spend at least two months in the camps, with most remaining there for more than a year. Returning workers say they were given boiled gourd and rice to eat, issued with 20 litres of water a day for all purposes, and confined about 80 to a room measuring 40 feet (12 metres) square.
Because of communications problems and a lack of liaison with the Myanmar embassy in Kuala Lumpur, detained migrant workers risk being held there for much longer than the term of their sentence, as well as losing all contact with their families, says Ko Mya Min Htike, who was detained for more than five months in Belentik camp.
“Detention in a camp is normal after completion of a jail sentence. You are supposed to be able to contact the embassy, which will help you return home, but the embassy visits only once a month. The citizenship verification process is subject to delays. Detainees can spend at least two months in the camps,” he said.
Ma Shoon Lae Lae Khine, now 17, was detained for more than a year in Tenah Merah camp. She said she was from Mawlamyine, Mon State, and went to Malaysia when she was only 13 to work in a shop for two years. She was arrested, jailed for one month for illegal immigration and then sent to the camp after her release.
Because she told officials she was 18, she was sent to an adult camp.
Though she said she had given her name to a visiting Myanmar embassy official, she had lost contact with her family. “I’m not sure if my family still lives in our village. We lost contact so long ago. I don’t know when I can go back either. When I do, I’ll have to stay with a friend I made in the camp,” she said.
Labour and immigration minister U Thein Swe said the protracted citizen verification procedures had held back the government’s efforts to repatriate detained Myanmar migrant workers. “We’re visiting camps around Malaysia to meet with detained Myanmar migrant workers and to verify their citizenship in order to repatriate them as soon as possible,” said a spokesperson for the Myanmar embassy in Malaysia.
“If they are confirmed as a citizen and want to go home, we take action as best we can,” the official added. The embassy says it knows of more than 2000 Myanmar migrant workers detained in 11 camps in Malaysia.
Last month, the President’s Office announced that Foreign Minister Daw Aung San Suu Kyi would visit Malaysia this month and would meet Myanmar migrant workers there. This would be her first visit to Malaysia, the secondbiggest destination for Myanmar migrant workers after Thailand.
Ko Kyaw Zin of the Kepong Free Funeral Service said the plight of migrant workers in Malaysia was more complicated than that in Thailand, and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit could help detainees.
“Detainees are like ghosts because it’s hard to prove they really exist. I think the condition of migrant workers will improve once she is able to see the real situation,” he said.
According to the Myanmar embassy in Malaysia, more than 12,000 Myanmar migrant workers have been repatriated since 2015. Last month, 300 detained workers were repatriated with funding from some Malaysiabased organisations. The Myanmar government launched its own repatriation plan on August 8, bringing home 130 detainees.
Daw Phyu Khine still hopes for the swift return of her son. “I hope he can come home,” she said, “if he’s still alive.”
An unidentified woman looks for a relative among the migrant workers arriving at Yangon Airport on August 8 after being released from detention camps in Malaysia.