KUALA LUMPUR — Burmese migrant workers here say local authorities are making a difficult situation worse by rigorously enforcing legal checks on the foreign worker population in Kuala Lumpur, where undocumented migrants face detention and the threat that religious violence in Burma could again spill over into Malaysia lingers.
In Malaysia, clashes between Burmese Buddhists and Muslims took place this year in late May and early June, mostly confined to areas around Kuala Lumpur. At least six Burmese migrant workers were killed and hundreds others, fearing for their safety, were repatriated in the aftermath.
June also saw more than 1,000 Burmese migrant workers detained by Malaysian police who said they were rounded up “to prevent further bloodshed,” and a similar push over the last three months has the Burmese migrant community in Malaysia on edge once again.
“We’re always worried about Malaysian police wherever we go around Kuala Lumpur—even though we hold legal permit documentation and a passport, they check us meticulously at every check point, especially near Chinatown where many Burmese stay,” said Kyi Aung, a 43-year-old Burmese migrant who has been living in Kuala Lumpur for more than 10 years.
“Especially [Burmese nationals who] overstay. Police know who they are, so if they suspect it, they arrest them and let them call their boss to take responsibility for them. Sometimes, police offer overstayers the chance to bribe them, at least 100 ringgit [US$31],” he said.
Kyi Aung, who works for a recruitment company in Kuala Lumpur’s Damansara Township, said that in the course of his 10-year stay in Malaysia, the Selayang neighborhood was often the scene of conflicts between foreigners—most commonly Burmese, Nepalese, Indians, Filipinos and Indonesians—and Malaysians.
“I hear that there is violence almost every day in that area. There is no rule of law in that place, but after media reported on it repeatedly, Burmese people got more notice from both governments. Now we are checked rigorously by the Malaysian government … overstays are more of a concern,” he said.
With Malaysian authorities stepping up a campaign to root out undocumented workers in early September, a second wave of Burmese migrants returning to their home country appears to be underway. On Sept. 13, 170 migrant workers returned to Burma, saying they had chosen to voluntarily leave Malaysia because they feared arrest by authorities. They said this year’s crackdown was particularly thorough and unregistered migrants were living in fear of being apprehended.
Thein Naing, a food shop owner in Kuala Lumpur, said the process of making oneself legal was unclear, with the governments of Burma and Malaysia providing different and sometimes contradictory information on the matter.
“For instance, the Malaysia government said if a worker can show their identity documents approved by the Burmese Embassy, they will issue legal stay cards, but on the embassy’s side, they said if the Malaysian government grants permission [to work in the country], they will confirm a long-stay permit, so people don’t know how to do it. There is no consistency between them,” said Thein Naing, who has lived in Malaysia for more than 20 years.
Malaysian authorities are reportedly targeting about 400,000 unregistered migrant workers in their latest sweep.
“If possible, the Burmese government should help Burmese workers who want to legally stay in Malaysia by issuing the required approval letter. If not, there will be more illegal laborers working in Malaysia,” he said.
Burma’s Labor Minister Aye Myint visited Kuala Lumpur in September to discuss the expulsion of unregistered Burmese workers with the Malaysian government.
Upon his return, he said that unregistered workers would be allowed to come back to Burma without facing fines, even if they had left the country by crossing the border illegally. As his figure, there is about 250,000 Burmese nationals work in Malaysia, more than 110,000 of whom are without proper legal documentation. Some 8,000 Burmese in Malaysia hold UN refugee status in the fellow Asean nation.
However, those numbers may be shrinking. Burmese migrant workers said that following the September crackdown, many of their fellow laborers were returning home, delivering a blow to Malaysian industries heavily reliant on them and nearly forcing the owners of some factories and small and medium enterprises to close shop.
Win Myint, a chef at the Old Town coffee shop in Kuala Lumpur’s Sunway neighborhood, said many Malaysian businessmen valued Burmese migrants’ work ethic and did not want to see them leave the country in the wake of the crackdown.
“Some owners tried to get stay permission for their workers because Burmese workers work hard—they can even work 12 hours a day, which local workers can’t do,” he said.
Even Burmese migrant workers who are not concerned about being harassed by the government are finding it difficult to envision a long-term future in Malaysia, where rising living costs present another challenge.
“I earn 1,500 ringgit [US$500] per month. I can’t save money and can’t send any to my family, but the reason I am still working here is, how can I earn that much money in my country?” Win Myint said. “However, I am considering going back next year.
“We spent more than 3,000 ringgit to come Malaysia, meaning in one year we cannot save money, because some workers in food shops, construction sites and factories only earn less than 1,000 ringgit. They can’t even send money back to their families,” he added.
Burmese workers on the ground in Malaysia agreed that anyone earning 200,000 kyats (US$206) or more per month in Burma would be better off remaining in the country rather than face the hardships of the current migrant labor situation in Malaysia.
“This is not a good time for us migrant workers in Malaysia,” Thein Naing said.