Working for (bare) life

IT IS GETTING dark as we approach the Cameron Highlands, about two hundred kilometres north of and a three-hour drive from Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. These highlands were once a hill resort for the colonial elite and continue to attract visitors to their temperate climate where tea and strawberries blossom. The rolling hills afford genteel country views and lush green vegetation cushions the landscape.  

Tucked away from the immediate tourist gaze is the industrial-style fruit and vegetable production on farms stretching along the verdant valleys, often guarded from the elements by plastic sheeting that shimmers brightly in the sunlight. These farms produce much of the fresh fruit and vegetables available in Kuala Lumpur supermarkets and they do so relying heavily on migrant labour. Much of the Malaysian economy today is facilitated by the influx of legal and undocumented workers who predominantly toil in low paid and manual work sectors with little or no workplace or health protection. Some of those working on the slopes of the Cameron Highlands are, in fact, refugees. 

Malaysia is home to one of the largest refugee populations in this region. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has registered about a hundred thousand refugees, but some estimate that more than two hundred thousand now live (and many work) in Malaysia. The vast majority of refugees have come from Burma, fleeing conflict, army repression and violence against minorities. Malaysia is not a signatory to the UN refugee convention or its protocol, meaning that refugees do not legally exist in Malaysia. The Malaysian government tolerates the UNHCR and its work, but treats refugees not much better than the millions of other undocumented migrants living and working in Malaysia. This means the police routinely harass, arrest and detain them in immigration detention and, on occasion, deport them to places like Thailand. Human rights abuses are documented, but rarely acted upon, with political will expended elsewhere, placing refugees amongst the most discriminated and marginalised groups in Malaysia. 

I HAVE COME to the Cameron Highlands to document and interview a community of refugees working and living on farms with two representatives from a Chin refugee community organisation. They too want to see what life is like for refugees living and working here. The refugee experience in Malaysia varies depending upon ethnic and religious identity, as refugees from Burma have to register via ethnic-based refugee community organisations before they can be processed by the UNHCR. The immense numbers of refugees from Burma have strained UNHCR resources and as a result it has initiated, part-funded and works with many refugee community organisations to help with basic service provision, such as health, education and social programs. These organisations are run by refugees for refugees. They often issue their own identity cards, help with data collection about vulnerable populations and generally are the first point of contact for new arrivals. Most refugee organisations also offer an employment service for members, which, given the illegality, are surprisingly well organised. Today, we are checking in on some of the people a refugee organisation has placed here to work on the farms.

After taking some turns off the main thoroughfare, the mountainous roads give way to deep valleys and we see the expanse of farms dotted along the road. At the first large farm men are busy harvesting tomatoes under the polystyrene sheeting as a light drizzle envelops the mountain slope. We chat to a couple of workers from Nepal and they point us to a further lot up the hillside where they say the ‘Burma people’ are working. We trek on and come upon a group of Chin labourers ripping out old plants and throwing them into containers. They say conditions are okay and they are paid on time, but they wish the UNHCR process of registration was quicker, as some did not have the registration card that provides some protection with the police and immigration officials. One of the Chin refugees led us to their dormitory housing, a basic wooden structure with a range of sectioned-off rooms. Some were used by families, others contained mattresses for up to ten single men. Some families had a bedroom and separate kitchen; entrepreneurial ones even had a small garden behind the dormitory block in which they grew vegetables for cooking.

Everyone on the farm with whom we spoke had found their job either via a refugee organisation or friends who were already working here. Many refugees from Burma are sought-after labourers, as they were farmers in Burma. Many of Chin workers on this farm had left their mountainous villages and small farms in search for a life away from army persecution and in search of a better life. Now they found themselves in similar conditions on another hillside in a foreign country working and still hoping and dreaming about that better life. The conditions on the farm here were basic, but the biggest problem was that they could not leave the farm for fear of being arrested. As a result some had missed appointments with the UNHCR in Kuala Lumpur, or were simply unsure about what had happened to their refugee application. 

Further down the valley at another farm, fear of the authorities became palpable when a group of unregistered refugees showed us their sleeping quarters. They had carved a secret passageway through the dense rainforest to a basic wooden structure, which they used as a meeting room and lounge to relax after work. From there a short walk up the hill took us to even denser forest until it became apparent that the trees were in fact their bedrooms. They had constructed makeshift treehouses in the thicket, obscured from below. The dwellings were not only basic, but also precariously constructed jutting out over ravines. One of the refugee farm workers, Michael – Chin were missionised by American Christian missionaries in the late nineteenth century and many have adopted English Christian names alongside their Chin names – told us of their fear of the authorities. Other refugees had told them that they would be beaten and taken away if they were detected. The vulnerability of refugees is even greater here as they do not receive information about what services refugee organisations can provide, what refugees can do to protect themselves from authorities and where to go for help when someone gets arrested. Simon, one of the Chin refugee organisation representatives, shared this information with them and allayed some of their fears, but the possibility of detection and arrest persist, especially for unregistered refugees. 

AS AN ANTHROPOLOGIST my work traverses a number of fields of enquiry, some marked by my own interests, others as they appear in my research. My work has for a number of years revolved around identity politics and how we can find ways of overcoming our desires to categorise, label and ultimately divide people into ‘us’ and ‘them’. I have explored these questions in Malaysia, a major trading partner and holiday destination for Australians. When the Australian government announced the so-called ‘Malaysia solution’ in 2011 there was suddenly another dimension to this relationship. Indonesia continues to be seen as the staging ground for boat arrivals to Australia, but increasingly awareness spread that Malaysia was the main conduit for refugees from beyond our region to Indonesia in the first place. With its profile raised, Malaysia was portrayed as unfit for ‘our’ refugees to be processed and human rights issues precluded the Malaysia refugee swap to come to fruition. Indeed, Malaysia has a bad record when it comes to providing its citizens, let alone refugees, migrants or others with human rights. However, Malaysia does provide a first protection space for many who have nowhere else to go. 

For the last four years I have been living and working with refugees across peninsula Malaysia to get an idea of what life is like for them in a country that does not recognise them. The experiences I have recorded tell many sometimes conflicting and contradictory stories. The majority of refugees find work in factories, on plantations, in restaurants and other service industry jobs. While many find it difficult to earn a living, some refugees have found relative prosperity in Malaysia. Indeed, I am aware of cases where resettlement to a third country has been declined by refugees whose jobs or businesses in Malaysia have provided a good life. Some earn monthly wages equivalent to Malaysia’s mean/median income levels of 1500–2000 RM (around AUD$500–650) per month, working as shop assistants, restaurant cooks or in beauty parlours. These lucky few do not represent the refugee experience in Malaysia, but their existence illustrates the vast diversity of experience amongst individual refugees. It also points to the major pull factors drawing in refugees from camps along the Thai–Burma border in search of work and the opportunity to earn money for their own survival, as well as the opportunity to send remittances to their families and friends left behind.

Many refugees from Burma who have made it to Malaysia are regarded by their brethren who remain in refugee camps along the Thai–Burma border, or even in urban refugee clusters around New Delhi, as the lucky ones because Malaysia is seen to provide opportunities to work and be paid relatively well. As a result, refugees working in Malaysia are expected to send remittances to family and friends. This is not always possible, especially as expectations often exceed the reality. One refugee remarked to me: ‘I try to send money back but now I have a measly salary, I haven’t sent money back in a long time.’

Refugees are defined by their precarity, beginning with flight from a place where they no longer felt safe or secure. Fleeing home is the beginning of a new precarious existence in limbo, in transit and insecure. Refugees’ precarity is thus existential, but also rooted in the everyday existence of not knowing where the next meal will come from or where they can stay, whether they will be safe there or not. The UNHCR, some local NGOs, churches and community refugee organisations have very limited means to support refugees, and while some organisations offer newly arrived refugees a place to rest and some staples to begin with, most rely on friends and family to survive and find shelter and paid work. 

Work is an act of survival in Malaysia. This fact is sometimes taken advantage of by unscrupulous employers. Common stories revolve around the non-payment of wages, terrible working conditions and other forms of rent seeking. Many employers exploit refugees’ vulnerabilities, such as not having work rights or even a legal right to reside in the country. Refugees have no recourse; they cannot go to the police or the courts to seek remedy.

James, a refugee working in a Kuala Lumpur restaurant, lamented the twelve to thirteen hours of work every day with little sleep and few days off (two days a month): ‘every day [I work] like a cow, go to work, cannot think about leisure, if we don’t go to work we cannot pay rent, food.’ His job is far from his cheap rental apartment he shares with several other refugees. He takes public transport to work and is very aware of the daily risk he takes. Police could arrest him at any stop. Usually the police are not interested in arresting and charging refugees but in extorting some money, a mobile phone or other item of value. They know that most refugees carry their wages on them as they have no bank accounts, so make for easy pickings. Because transportation is a major issue, many refugees try to find work that also offers them a place to stay. This arrangement may sound generous but many of the places I visited were small, bare concrete lots with portioned-up dwellings. In one, seven families and several single men lived on a bare concrete floor with partitioned rooms, each the size of a large bed. They shared one toilet and one kitchen area. James hopes to escape this situation and ‘hopes every day for [the] resettlement process.’

RESETTLEMENT IS THE preferred option of the vast majority of refugees, especially to Australia or the United States. Many see resettlement as the end to their predicament and the precarity they live in every day. Malaysia has become one of the top resettlement countries, but even then only a couple of thousand are resettled every year, not enough to curb the numbers of new arrivals. UNHCR Malaysia is faced with an ever-increasing caseload as long as regional conflicts continue to push vulnerable populations abroad in search of protection. This pressure on an under-resourced and overworked UNHCR post in Kuala Lumpur means that contact with clients is via mobile phone. This is beneficial as it means clients do not have to attend the UNHCR offices to continually check on the progress of their application, rather they are contacted via text message or phone call. For those with a stable income this is a preferable option as it allows them to work and earn money away from Kuala Lumpur, while they await the outcome of their refugee application and later resettlement application. However, many refugees do not have the disposable income, or any income at all, to afford a phone and phone number. Most rely on cheap pay-as-you-go tariffs and their telephone numbers lapse when they cannot afford, or forget, to recharge their accounts. For some it is also simply a problem of connection, especially those working deep in plantations where mobile phone reception is weak and inconsistent. Thus the UNHCR, with the help of refugee community organisations, is constantly trying to update telephone registers in an effort to connect with refugees out of town or out of touch. 

I met one Somali family in financial difficulty in an outer suburb of Kuala Lumpur, where new developments continue to displace the plantations and formerly wild fringes of the metropolis. Here, older low-set housing estates from the 1970s and ’80s stand interspersed by commercial lots, food stalls and car repair shops. In one of the buildings, we are led up to the second floor where the family lives, and up another flight of stairs to a makeshift Somali refugee community school and meeting room. We settle in to hear the story of their lives in Malaysia, how they came to be here and what their everyday life looks like now. The family fled Somalia and came to Malaysia by plane following the breakdown of their country and increasing violence in their hometown. Patriarch, Ahmad is the chairperson of the Somali community and a former Somali airlines sales manager and has been in Kuala Lumpur since 2007. He is the father of five children, two of whom were born in Malaysia. No one in the family currently has a job and none of them can find work; they have been looking for work, but without luck. One of them worked on an oil palm plantation a long time ago, but they were cheated out of their pay cheque. They now rely on remittances from other family members who have been resettled to Canada. 

In 2010 the UNHCR provided Fatimah, Ahmad’s wife, with some help to establish a business making Somali food. She managed to set up her stall in the UNHCR compound once, but has been unable to set up her business elsewhere. The problem is finding a market for her food. She told me that she tried the local masjid (mosque), but the imam turned her down, even for the Ramadan market when many traders come from rural areas to sell specialty food in the city. Both Ahmad and Fatimah are Muslims and had hoped that in Malaysia, a Muslim-majority country with a history of providing sanctuary to Muslim refugees, they would find support and help from the local Muslim population, but they feel bitterly disappointed. Racism in Malaysia has made it extremely hard for African refugees to find work. Discrimination is rampant, based on skin colour, and even a shared religion cannot bridge the divide. Resettlement options have been sparse for Somalis and thus the waiting periods get longer and longer with lives in limbo stretched into an unforeseeable future.

African refugees in Malaysia are faced with an especially difficult situation; they have few networks and rarely find support from other local organisations. Refugees from Burma, especially the large Chin and Rohingya contingents, are often able to connect to local churches, mosques and organisations willing to help them. A Sudanese refugee from Darfur concurred, saying that finding a job is a big problem: ‘Malaysians see us as Africans, our reputation is not so good.’ He had been in Malaysia since 2007 and had not found a job. He motioned to some other Sudanese refugees standing nearby – the only jobs available are those in the small Sudanese community in Kuala Lumpur – ‘it is’, he said, a ‘very miserable situation.’

As night falls in the temperate climate of the Cameron Highlands where tourists mingle with locals enjoying the fruits (and vegetables) of migrant and refugee labour, I reflect back on the journeys these refugees have completed just to be in Malaysia. The Chin refugees mostly trekked across mountains into India and took boats across the treacherous Andaman Sea to Thailand before being smuggled into Malaysia, others came from refugee camps in Thailand. Most of the African refugees fled on foot and car from their homes to Mogadishu and flew, sometimes via a host of other destinations, into Kuala Lumpur as tourists and remained as unwanted guests in a country not ready to accept them. Each story of suffering was supplanted by hope and hard work to make a living while waiting, waiting for the next step out of precarity and into a life worth living. Working on the farms, in the restaurants and factories these refugees contribute their labour every day to a nation that does not know their names, their stories nor their contributions. 

Tomorrow is another day and for all the people in this story another day of work.

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