Marlin Beswetherick - Blog 3: An Unequal Price

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Recently, my job has given me the opportunity to hear about the realities of life as a refugee in Malaysia. It’s not pretty and there is no ‘one story’ that can encapsulate it. While all experiences are diverse and varied, one of the main factors of this variation can be boiled down to wealth. Privileges that are so taken for granted we hardly recognize as privilege must be bought (and the price is steep).

The unequal price of privilege is clear when regarding the recent crackdown on undocumented workers (a majority of whom are refugees and asylum-seekers). The number of raids skyrocketed. NGO’s were getting reports of people targeted and accosted even on the street; they were asked for their visa and passport whether they were working or not. Even hospitals were subject to these raids. To avoid prosecution, bribes are common and necessary for undocumented migrants and those who cannot afford to buy their safety they often face jail time.

Arrested as an undocumented migrant:

Beatings are common. So is being lashed until you faint and then revived so you can continue to receive all your assigned lashes. You’re encouraged to ask for more for the possibility of reducing your sentence. The scars from such beatings – physical and mental – last a lifetime.

Some families lose their fathers and husbands – the sole provider – with no warning and no notification of his arrest. He vanishes into the system and families are left bereft and afraid.

These bribes are also steep. When you already cannot find work and are vulnerable to manipulation and extortion, where does this money come from?

In comparison, a most striking event happened to a friend of mine around the same time as the crackdown. As a blonde, blue-eyed foreigner in Malaysia she tends to stick out in crowds. One day while walking home she was stopped by three police officers. They pulled over and poured out of their cop car – not to check her passport or visa but to ask if they could take photos with her. It was a bizarre moment to hear about but this type of reality is unimaginable for some.

When fears of deportation and brutality are a close reality, each decision has to be weighed and calculated. One refugee family I know recently suffered a robbery. The stolen items included their UNHCR card – which I am told will only be replaced with a paper copy – as well as cash and other cards. Another family had to find a new home quite suddenly last month. Their landlord decided to end their rental contract and shut off the power. Forced to leave, they asked for their deposit back (which is 2 months rent) but the owner refused. When I heard these stories, I was struck. In these situations, do you call the police? If you do, will the police report the crime or you, as an undocumented migrant?

Reporting to the police is a gamble. There is also a language barrier and time to consider. A friend who had to make a police report told me that it can take over 24 hours – a full day at the police station. In this case, the first family made a report but the second family did not. Each had to weigh what they had to lose in order to survive. This fear, this wariness only trickles downwards.

My first few weeks in Malaysia granted me the opportunity to visit UNHCR headquarters for a talk on Sexual and Gender Based Violence awareness for Afghani communities. Four women showed up (a veritable success by UNHCR standards as only one woman attended last year). What stands out in my memory of this talk was the discussion of sexual harassment in the workplace and how to deal with it. The response? Call in the male protectorate. The case workers guided the women to the answer “call the police”. Make a report.
I was left with the question: what about afterwards? If the harasser was not convicted…is there any protection (both personally and professionally) for the woman after the police depart?

The answer was no.

I could not help but feel that perhaps the women had it right. For some, the police do not mean protection: only increased risk.

I’ve been fortunate to be in a place to hear about some lives and realities and that I can share them here. However, the space to speak and protest is denied to many of these refugees and asylum seekers. Speaking out, asking for help, is fraught with political and personal danger. Listening to these stories continues to bring to light privilege and power that I wasn’t even aware I had. It also has been both horrifying and sobering in many cases. While I am sometimes struck by the sheer hopelessness of being trapped in a life you have little control over, I find that more often than not, in the face of these challenges people only strive harder and live their lives the best they can.  


Government Crackdown on Undocumented Workers

Torture By Judicial Caning in Malaysia