Without Work and Fearing Arrest, Undocumented Myanmar Migrants in Malaysia Take Their Own Lives

By Zaw Zaw Htwe 17 June 2020

YANGON—Six undocumented migrants from Myanmar have committed suicide in Malaysia in the past month after being stranded in the country for several months without any job opportunities and fearing arrest amid an immigration crackdown, according to a migrant rights group and a Myanmar Embassy official.

Thousands of undocumented Myanmar migrants in Malaysia who lost their jobs due to lockdowns imposed in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic now find their hardships exacerbated by a crackdown against illegal foreign workers.

A 40-year-old male undocumented migrant from Kyaukphyu Township in Myanmar’s Rakhine State committed suicide in Malaysia’s Johor State on Wednesday after struggling to earn enough money to survive.

His death followed Tuesday’s suicide in Kuala Lumpur of a 36-year-old female undocumented migrant from Myaungmya Township in Myanmar’s Ayeyarwady Region who was distressed at being unable to return to Myanmar due to the lockdown, U San Win, chairman of the Kuala Lumpur-based Kathpone Free Funeral Service Society (KFFS), told The Irrawaddy on Wednesday.

U San Win said the female worker wrote in her diary that she had been stranded after losing her job, was unable to leave her room and wanted to return to Myanmar.

Just three days earlier, a 30-year-old undocumented Myanmar migrant worker from Taungdwingyi Township in Magwe Region killed himself in Malaysia’s Selangor State on Saturday after experiencing financial hardship due a lack of job opportunities while not being able to return home.

KFFS provided funeral services for the migrants who died in Kuala Lumpur and Selangor, U San Win said.

Two other cases of undocumented Myanmar migrants killing themselves amid increased financial hardship resulting from the COVID-19 crisis were reported this month in Malaysia’s Penang State, according to Myanmar civil society groups based in Malaysia.

Those five cases followed an incident in late May in which an undocumented Myanmar migrant residing in Perak State committed suicide after being stranded without work during the lockdown.

Compared to their documented peers, undocumented workers in Malaysia were more likely to lose their jobs due to the COVID-19 crisis and now dare not venture outside for food or health care because of the ongoing crackdown on illegal foreign workers.

In Malaysia, undocumented foreign workers are often jailed for three to six months under the country’s immigration laws. After serving their prison terms, they are held at immigration detention centers until their identities and citizenship are confirmed by their respective embassies. Those detainees whose citizenship is confirmed by their respective embassies will be deported to their native countries.

“Even if they can find the money to cover the cost of travel, undocumented workers lack opportunities to return home. Many suffer from depression while stranded in their rooms,” U San Win said.

To make matters worse, jobless undocumented workers face difficulties paying their rent.

An embassy official and civil society organization representatives said they are trying to supply food to the Myanmar migrants across the country who are stranded without means of support due to the COVID-19 crisis.

U Aung Zaw Min, labor attaché at the Myanmar Embassy, said he was aware of some of the Myanmar suicide cases, saying undocumented workers are unable to find work and struggling to make a living due to the crackdown, though some registered workers are beginning to return to work.

Of the more than 550,000 Myanmar migrants in Malaysia, an estimated 250,000 are undocumented workers, according to the embassy official. He estimated that up to 50,000 are currently struggling to make a living.

He said he was reporting on the situation to senior officials at the embassy, who would take up the issue with Malaysian authorities in order to find a way for undocumented workers to return home.

According to the embassy, around 400 Myanmar nationals stranded in Malaysia have been brought home on three repatriation flights since May 8.

Another 391 Myanmar undocumented workers were deported on May 11 on two flights chartered by the Malaysian government after serving their prison terms for staying in the country illegally.

The six Myanmar nationals who committed suicide in May and June would not have qualified for deportation as they were in hiding to avoid arrest by the Malaysian authorities.

The Myanmar Embassy has also been informed by the Malaysian government that it seeks to deport more than 3,000 additional detainees it claims are from Myanmar and who are currently being held at immigrant detention centers across the country.

U San Win, the KFFS chairman, urged the Myanmar government to negotiate the issue with the Malaysian government so that all stranded undocumented workers can be brought home soon.

Note: This story was updated on June 18, 2020 to revise the total number of people who have committed suicide to six.

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