Monthly Archives: October 2013

The Global Catch: Trafficking of Fishermen

Although trafficking continues to capture the imaginations of the global public, we rarely hear about trafficked men. Most of the international focus is on women and children; especially those trafficked for sexual exploitation. This week Twitter is especially busy with tweets about the upcoming Counter Child Trafficking Online Conference. Kevin Bales is personally inviting people to register for what is lauded to be the largest online anti-trafficking summit!

In the course of this field research many stakeholders mentioned trafficking as big problem in Malaysia, including rumors about immigration officials selling deportable asylum seekers to brokers who would place them in forced labor or indentured servitude situations.  However, when pressed to provide more concrete data or even estimates most service providers said they really did not know the scale of the phenomenon as all trafficked persons are housed in government-run shelters and are not assisted by civil society organizations.  Approximately 1,100 women and children are provided shelter in government run houses, the majority of whom are thought to be victims of human trafficking.

Having heard these kinds of reports, we started digging more systematically and finally encountered an organization, Tenaganita, which conducted a fact-finding mission to Tanjung Manis in Sarawak to investigate trafficking of 60 Cambodian fishermen. Some of the “fishermen” have been kidnapped (after being treated to one too many drinks), while others were recruited under false pretenses to work in construction but found themselves forced to work on Thai boats on high seas instead.  Tenaganita learned about them when a couple of the fishermen literally jumped ship and searched for help.  The organization found others in detention centers.  After jumping ship they were recruited to work on rubber plantations only to be deemed illegal migrants and locked up by immigration authorities.

Tenaganita believes that the 60 trafficked fishermen represent a proverbial tip of the iceberg. The Thai fishing industry is dependent on migrant workers, as Thai men are no longer willing to face the dangers of fishing on high seas. Many of the trafficked fishermen were in poor health, not only because they worked hard for two or three years without spending any time on dry land, but also because their diet consisted of fish only; as a result they had vitamin deficiencies and many ailments.

Fishermen who escape or enter Malaysia without documentation are arrested under Section 6(1) of the Immigration Act. The sentence carries affine of RM 10,000 (app. $3,300) or imprisonment of up to five years or both and a mandatory whipping of no more than six strokes of the ‘rotan’ (rattan canes). The question remains: How many more fisherman are working as forced laborers on trawler boats?

The 60 fishermen were lucky, because Tenaganita worked with a Cambodian NGO and the Cambodian Government who ultimately negotiated their release from the Malaysian detention center.


As one of the program staff remarked, perhaps before we enjoy the next seafood dish we should think where the prawns come from and who is catching them.



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Methodology: CBPR

CBPR or community-based participatory research has been much lauded by many anthropologists and other social scientists. This model pairs academic researchers and community members; both partners should have active roles in shaping the research’s design and implementation.

In theory, CBPR offers many benefits to academic researchers, the community involved in the research, and individuals in the community. Researchers may benefit from a better understanding of the community, allowing for better research design. The community can help shape research design and ensure that the actual needs of the community are taken into account. CBPR also provides practical advantages: it facilitates access to possible study participants; language barriers are minimized if not eliminated since community co-researchers are bilingual; a balance between emic (insider) and etic (outsider) perspective is maintained.

I have used this approach in many of my research projects, often with terrific results, but never without challenges. In the current study of urban refugees in Kuala Lumpur we have hired several refugee research assistants representing the Chin, Iranian, Sri Lankan, and Somali refugee communities as well as the urban poor. They have been trained in research ethics and ethnographic interviewing. We have debated the use of oral consent forms, protection of human subjects, and confidentiality issues. Many of the RAs seemed to be natural ethnographers: friendly extroverts able to chat casually about many issues, easily developing rapport with their fellow co-researchers and us. Things were looking good!

A week has passed and we are yet to see notes from any interviews! Good training and careful selection do not seem to trump cultural attitudes towards deadlines.  Last night I have posted the following message on my Facebook: How do you motivate people to finish a task if they don’t have any sense of urgency? I received much advice: pay them (I am!), don’t pay them or at least threaten not to (would this be ethical?), provide more training (am considering); shame them on FB (not FB friends with any of them plus as one of my friends wrote: “Shaming never helped anyone to do a better job – value them for what they can do well and have a conversation about what else needs to be done”).

Stay tuned for reports on resolutions…. But never underestimate the difficulties related to CBPR!



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The plight of the Rohingya

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We spent Saturday afternoon in an apartment complex housing urban poor, including refugees and labor migrants. The 10-story building, eerily reminiscent of the 1970s socialist architecture in my native Poland, is badly in need of a fresh coat of paint. Despite the presence of a cleaning crew sorting recyclables from the adjoining dumpster, garbage was strewn all over and anorexic looking cats were prowling around in search of something to eat. Across the street was a posh, gated and freshly painted condominium. The contrast between these two buildings—sunny yellow with a white trim and nondescript gray with stains that are probably to gross to imagine–was stark!

We came to interview Noor (a pseudonym), a Rohingya community leader, and his Malay wife, Zara (also a pseudonym). Noor presides over an informal association of about 1,500 Rohingya refugees, which he runs from his apartment. Unlike other community leaders we met who focus on providing direct services to their members, Noor focuses mainly on working with the media and the international community to keep the plight of the Rohingyas in the spotlight!

The Rohingya, a Muslim minority in Burma, are one of the most persecuted communities in the world. Although, they have been living in the state of Arakan since the 8th century, the Rohingyas have been under extreme scrutiny by the Burmese government. They haven’t been recognized as citizens of The Union of Burma since the 1962 coup d’etat by General Ne Win. After decades of oppression and marginalization, the passing of the 1982 Citizenship Law deemed them officially stateless.

Human rights activist estimate that as many as 35,000 Rohingya fled Burma and neighboring Bangladesh by boat between June 2012 and May 2013, most of them hoping to reach Muslim-majority Malaysia. Locally, community leaders indicate that close to 28, 000 Rohingya are currently seeking political asylum status in Malaysia. Approximately, 13,500 Rohingyas have been registered with UNHCR and 14,500 have yet to be registered with UNHCR or with relevant organizations.

With the exception of the most vulnerable individuals—or cases as UNHCR refers to refugees!—the agency has not registered any new Rohingya since December 2005. Noor keeps a thick binder, in which he methodically records the names and contact information of members of his network documenting their presence in KL in the hopes that some day soon UNHCR might again focus on this group of stateless and unwanted people.

Similarly to other refugees, the Rohingya have very few rights in Malaysia. As a result, they are targeted by immigration authorities and Rela, a volunteer corps—akin to the American Minute Men–charged with arresting illegal migrants. In 2006, the Government of Malaysia began registering the Rohingya for IMM13 permits (or social visit passes), which would grant them temporary work status and thus some protection. Due to concerns by the government surrounding the registration process (accusations of corruption!), permit registration has since ended, and the Rohingya, like other Burmese refugees, continue to live without legal status.

Noor gets very agitated as he talks about the uncertain future of his fellow Rohingya and his own family. Although he is married to a Malay woman and has three citizen children—Malaysia being a Muslim country grants citizenship through the mother– his petition to become Malaysian citizen has been denied. Zara nudges Noor to show us the documentation he assembled to support his citizenship application. Noor produces another three-inches thick binder including every imaginable piece of paper the immigration authorities might need to make a decision. Everything, except a passport or travel document! Noor left Burma 22 years ago stateless in possession of no such documents!

His prospects for resettlement in the US are also bleak. Again, he gets very angry recalling that last year the United States resettled some 8,000 Burmese refugees from Malaysia; only three were Rohingya!

We wonder how Noor and Zara and their three small children—two boys ages six and four, and a four-months old baby girl—make ends meet. Zara used to work for a local NGO but with three children under the age of six, including a baby she breast feeds, she cannot afford to work eight hours a day. Her two sons are in a preschool, set up by a Malaysian NGO on the ground floor of the apartment complex, from 8 am till noon. Zara uses that time to help her brother who owns a small store. In exchange, he gives the family food and some money. Avie met the family some years back when they had only one child. They used to live in a much nicer apartment in a different neighborhood, recalls Zara. Looking around her current dwelling—very small, sparsely furnished but clean and well taken care of three rooms—she says: “We have no choice!” The good news is that the neighborhood is safe. The two boys are running around, playing with other kids in the narrow hallways and in the playground, all on their own.

Like many other Rohingya men, Noor has another wife and children in Burma. As a Muslim he is allowed to take a second wife provided he is able to support multiple wives and treat them equally. Noor has not seen his first wife in 22 years and he is certainly in no position to send remittances to his first family. It is his second wife’s family that support him!



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Syrians in Malaysia

The number of Syrian refugees is on the rise. Reports about Syrians fleeing to neighboring countries abound, but until today I was not aware that refugees from Syria are also arriving in Malaysia. The number of arrivals from Syria is not clear; UNHCR-Malaysia does not mention them on their website. And yet local NGOs are beginning to serve people fleeing the escalating conflict and violence in Syria.

Over the last three months about 60 families from Syria have registered at the Sahabat Support Centre (SSC), a project of the Malaysian Social Research Institute (MSRI). One third of those families are Syrian, almost a third are Palestinian, and another third are Iraqis. Like all other of the roughly 100,000 refugees in Malaysia, they are not entitled to any support from UNHCR until their refugee status has been determined and recognized. Given the current backlog, service providers estimate that the newly arrived refugees might need to wait a year or two for their first instance interview, which is ironic since some of the Iraqis have been approved for resettlement by UNHCR-Damascus. We have learnt of one family who was to travel to the United States within a month. However, their dwellings in Damascus were bombed, they feared for they lives, and fled to Kuala Lumpur. They were told by UNHCR that they would have to begin the whole process anew!

The refugees and service providers are frustrated as they cannot understand why UNHCR-Malaysia does not honor decisions made by their colleagues in Damascus. The family in question brought with them all of their documentation, but somehow this was not enough…

A blog set up by Syrian expats in Malaysia suggests that refugees from Syria arrive daily in Kuala Lumpur. They can get a 90-day visa on arrival which provides a relatively easy access to the country. Islam is a dominant religion in Malaysia which is not without importance either….


Filed under Urban Refugees

Access to health care

After an all day of training on research ethics and interviewing techniques, our refugee research assistants have been sent to the field to identify and recruit families for household interviews in the Chin and Daai Burmese, Iranian, and Sri Lankan refugee communities as well as among the urban poor. Sadly, we could not find a Rohingya research assistant able to write in English. Therefore, instead of conducting household interviews, we will be holding a couple of focus groups with the Rohingya so not all is lost. Fieldwork never goes as planned and always requires thinking on one’s feet!

Avie and I have also started interviewing stakeholders. The topic du jour was access to health care. Since Malaysia is not a signatory of the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees or its 1967 Protocol and has no legislative or administrative provisions in place for refugee protection, refugees have very few rights. In fact, even refugees registered with UNHCR are treated as illegal and are liable to harassment, detention, fines, corporal punishment in the form of public whipping, and deportation.

The lack of legal recognition of refugees compromises their access to education, legal employment, and health care. With regard to health care, in 2005 the Ministry of Health entered into an agreement with UNHCR to provide UNHCR recognized refugees with a 50 percent discount on fees charged to foreigners seeking health services at government hospitals. The fees refugees are required to pay are equal to payments Malaysian citizens incur when treated at state sponsored hospitals. The Ministry of Health also subsidizes the treatment for HIV and TB.

We haven’t visited any clinics yet, but interviews with IOM and ICMC indicate that health literacy is very limited among refugees living in Kuala Lumpur, preventive care is almost nonexistent, but health care needs are great. Gender-based violence, domestic violence, child abuse, and child marriage are of great concern to service providers and refugee advocates. Resulting physical and emotional health needs are considerable, but few services are available. ICMC, with funding from BPRM, has been providing services to survivors of gender-based violence for the past four years, but like most project-based programming these services are time-limited and long-term sustainability is a challenge.

Stayed tuned for more dispatches from the field…


Filed under Urban Refugees