The first group of Vietnamese men marched from their block two by two. Handcuffed in pairs, free arms holding the shoulder of the detainee in front of them, heads down. They entered the small building, sat in two neat rows, cross legged, leaning against each other. Seven in total. They were all young. Haggard and tired, sickly and pale, in detention already for about two months. You could see it on each face. Thin for not eating enough food, tired for not being able to sleep decently through the night, bored with another day of drudgery.
While many migrants come to the country with legitimate contracts and experience Malaysia as the country of opportunity for which they dreamed, many are not so fortunate. Foreign workers are often promised contracts and working conditions in their home countries by various outsourcing agencies that have government contracts to supply migrant labor to a variety of Malaysian companies and individuals.
There’s a whole spectrum of agents who get migrants jobs and bring them into Malaysia. Some good, some not who exploit workers intentionally, and who sell or traffick the unsuspecting worker for labor or for sex within the country.
Migrants are frequently cheated and used, and are especially vulnerable to exploitation. Some are paid poorly with wages wrongfully or arbitrarily deducted from their salary by employers. Others aren’t compensated for work-related injuries, which abound, especially in manufacturing jobs. Some are not paid at all. If they complain about mistreatment, employers are able to cancel their work permits and render them ‘undocumented.’ Without proper documentation, the foreign workers are subject to arrest, detention, and deportation.
These are typical stories repeated every day across the country. Migrants who are mistreated in this way, if they seek justice through the legal system for their unfair treatment are required to pay RM 100 each month for a ‘Special Pass’ which grants them temporary legal immigration status. Yet, with the ability to earn a wage stripped from them by their unjust employer, these migrants who seek resolution to their dispute cannot afford to remain in the country long enough to see the legal process through. As a result, most migrant workers are forced to return to their home countries without completing their court cases or receiving compensation.
Although a terrible ordeal, migrants who are granted special passes and eventually leave the country without compensation are fortunate if they avoid arrest and detention. Those migrants who are arrested are brought to one of the 13 Immigration Detention Centers like the facility I visited.
In theory, after 14 days of detention, arrested undocumented migrants are either released, or are sentenced to imprisonment, which often includes two to four strokes of the whip, an unimaginably painful corporal punishment I would learn about later in my trip through the first hand account of a friend. Since the government introduced a policy of whipping for immigration offences in 2002, thousands of undocumented migrants have been whipped, a practice the Bar Council of Malaysia has condemned as degrading, cruel, and inhumane treatment that violates basic human rights.
Described as “a siren call [that] will… forever take us from our complacency to the plight of so many lost, lonely and hurting”
Photographs by Jonathan Kwok
Stories by Andrew Kooman
Reflections by Melanie Hurlbut
with a Foreword by Ambassador Dato’ Dennis Ignatius Former High Commissioner of Malaysia to Canada
Was one of the young men the boy Ellen told me about in the car, in the detention centre after wasting away in prison for two years? I am not certain. The boy in question was arrested for stealing wan tan mee – a few kilograms of noodles from the hawker stall where he had worked. Accused by an angry boss for a crime he did not commit, in a moment of anger he exchanged words with his boss who later filed a report with the police that landed him in jail for two years. Unable to communicate in Bahasa, and given no translator, he simply was stuck in prison with no trial, until Ellen heard his case and with the little Vietnamese she knew was able to get him out of the prison. Since his work visa expired while he was in jail, where he wasted two years of his life forgotten and alone, his papers had become outdated and he was, therefore, an illegal migrant and sent to a Detention Centre. Men like this young man populate the centre we visited and the 12 other Immigration Detention Centres in Malaysia.
I sat close to the seven men, shook their hands, prayed for them under my breath as Ellen took what information she needed from them in order to get them out of detention. The young man I spoke with, his English simple but clear, told me a little about life in the centre. He talked with his hands, moving them with each word. The first three fingers on his right hand cut off at the first knuckle. The stubs tapped against the palm of my hand when we greeted each other. A working accident he did not speak about.
Few of the men had blankets, and all of them had only one change of clothes: a pair of shorts or pants, a Tshirt, and underwear. Not allowed cards, books, paper to write letters, they sat day after day with nothing to do, little to no contact with the outside world, parents, girlfriends, siblings or friends back home. Sitting in their small enclosure waiting for who knows how long for who knows what to happen. Hot and miserable throughout the humid days in their block, a roof over their heads but no walls. Cold through the night lying on the cement floor in the dark with no bedding.
About one hundred men in their block and three toilets between them, their space crowded and uncomfortable, the cement slab they slept on, covered with the sweat and smells of the refuse of a hundred others whose stomachs growled in hunger, not filled by the one piece of roti they were issued for breakfast, the handful of rice at lunch, and the small bowl of rice with the finger-sized fish they were given at night.
I asked them what food I could buy them at the small canteen in the centre where visitors can purchase over-priced food for detainees. Noodles, they said, and soda. I bought bread, cake, cookies, hard candy and snacks. The best RM 50 I have ever spent.
We said goodbye after Ellen and I prayed for them, in the open, in front of the Muslim guards, invoking the name of Christ and his God openly for all to hear and see, a thing some in the country would caution against. The most honest words, perhaps, that I have ever prayed, however feeble and self-conscious under the guards’ bored and distracted eye.
Ellen later said she risked praying in such a way once, and has done so on every visit since, sometimes to her own derision. In her opinion it is one of the most useful things she can do, a thing that encourages and strengthens the detainees. We watched them march away, back to their block, back to the grinding and habitual boredom of another day in the centre. None of these men were going home, but Ellen secured some necessary information. Perhaps on her next visit, some of them would have a plane ticket in their hand.