Refugees and Space in Urban Areas in Malaysia

By Nah, Alice M. | Forced Migration Review, February 2010 | Go to article overview

Refugees and Space in Urban Areas in Malaysia


Nah, Alice M., Forced Migration Review


Refugees know that their safety and wellbeing depend on their accurate reading and careful negotiation of different spaces and landscapes in urban areas.

There are over 28 million people living in Malaysia. Among the three to four million non-citizens are around 100,000 asylum seekers, refugees and stateless persons. Malaysia is signatory neither to the 1951 Refugee Convention, nor to its 1967 Protocol. It has not enacted domestic legislation recognising the legal status of asylum seekers, refugees and stateless persons. However, it permits UNHCR to register, determine status and provide assistance to these populations. There are no refugee camps in Malaysia. Most reside in urban areas - the largest numbers in Kuala Lumpur, the Klang Valley and Penang. As of September 2009, UNHCR had registered 63,572 persons of concern from 44 countries in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, 32.8% of whom were women and girls. 91% of them originated from Burma.

UNHCR's ability to intervene to protect a person of concern to them is established through negotiation with law enforcement agencies and is therefore subject to change, sometimes at the whim of individuals holding key positions. As registration with UNHCR does not confer legal immigration status, most asylum seekers, refugees and stateless persons are vulnerable to the effects of an aggressive, punitive 'crackdown' on irregular migrants. From 2005 to 2008, the Immigration Department detained 216,373

persons and deported 191,583. Unreliable income, exploitation at work (in particular, in the form of unpaid wages), extortion by law enforcement officers, robbery by local gangsters, the high cost of rent, health services and education, as well as the need to support those unable to find work, make poverty endemic amongst refugees in Malaysia.

Living and work spaces

The first task refugees undertake upon arrival is to contact relatives or friends in Malaysia. Social support and assistance are more likely to be extended to individuals with kinship ties and who come from the same village and/or region. Refugees are not distributed evenly across urban areas - there are certain places that have a much higher density of migrants and refugees than others. These places are selected for two main reasons. They are where informal work and low-cost accommodation are available, and where relatives, friends and - for those without connections - other people of their own ethnic identity reside.

There are two broad categories of living spaces in Malaysia. The first are what civil society groups and UNHCR describe as 'jungle sites'. These are plantations or pockets of jungle scattered in and around urban areas, a result of uneven urban development. In these jungle sites, refugees typically construct their own huts, made of plastic sheeting, wooden planks, trees and leftover construction materials. In areas more prone to sudden immigration raids, they avoid constructing even semi-permanent structures in order to reduce the likelihood of detection and instead sleep in the jungle.

The second are known as 'urban sites', typically run-down, lowcost, high-rise apartments located in densely populated areas. Several families and individuals share the cost of renting an apartment, with adults and children sleeping close together.

Humanitarian needs differ between these different sites. In jungle sites refugees lack clean water and sanitation, and are exposed to malaria and dengue. In urban sites, there is chronic over-crowding, high potential for the spread of infectious diseases, and greater vulnerability to sexual and physical violence when women and men walk home at night after late shifts at work. Refugees suspect that perpetrators of these crimes are emboldened by the fact that survivors almost never lodge police reports for fear of being arrested for immigration offences. Refugees shift residence frequently for fear of arrest during immigration raids conducted in high-density areas and also because they are unable to pay rent. …

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