Un­cer­tain fate for many mi­grant work­ers

The Myanmar Times - - News - NYAN LYNN AUNG nyan­lin­aung@mm­times.com

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.”

Photo: Aung Htay Hlaing

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.

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