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(en) Malaysian navy, police turn away refugees

From Platformist Anarchism <platform@geocities.com>
Date Thu, 26 Mar 1998 11:12:36 +0000
Organization http://www.geocities.com/CapitolHill/6170


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Malaysian navy, police turn away refugees 
    By Conor O'Clery in the Irish Times

Every night a flotilla of small boats slips out 
to sea from the Indonesian island of Sumatra. 
The seven-foot long sampans carry no lights. 
They sometimes cut their outboard motors to 
glide past the moored freighters and tramp 
steamers which clutter the Straits of Malacca. 
Then they make a dash for the shores of Malaysia 
on the opposite bank.

Each sampan is packed with up to 15 Indonesians, 
desperate to find work and food elsewhere as 
their country is plunged into its worst-ever 
economic crisis. Waiting for them on the 
Malaysian side is a small fleet of naval and 
police patrol boats to make sure they do not 
make it.

Sometimes the skippers dump their passengers 
near the shore and leave them to swim for it. 
Police say 26 Indonesians have drowned in this 
way recently.

Malaysia, too, is suffering from a financial 
crisis but it has some casual work and higher 
wages and its currency is much more valuable 
than that of Indonesia. The migrants are what 
Malaysia's Prime Minister, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, 
calls a new breed of boat people and their 
numbers are growing in what could become one of 
the major human calamities arising from the 
financial crisis in south-east Asia.

Both Malaysia and neighbouring Singapore are 
sealing off their shores to prevent an influx of 
poor people who could strain their resources. 
The Singapore Prime Minister, Mr Goh Chok Tong, 
said: "If we see them in large numbers, the 
situation is going to destabilise Malaysia and 
Singapore."

To stem the flow, the Malaysian navy and police 
last week launched Operation Nyah Bersepadu, or 
Operation Go Away. A fleet of 20 patrol craft 
has been deployed, helped by spotter planes and 
helicopters with searchlights. New austerity 
measures expected in Indonesia in April and May 
are likely to make the situation worse, 
according to marine police commander, Mr Abdul 
Malek. He said about 200 Indonesians were being 
apprehended daily before Operation Go Away began 
on Friday and that some unscrupulous skippers 
were forcing passengers to swim ashore.

Nevertheless, hundreds are said to be still 
waiting on the Indonesian side to make the 
dangerous journey, which sometimes ends with 
refugees wading waist-deep through mud flats 
into the arms of waiting police.

Indonesian and Malaysian trafficers, or tekongs, 
who are caught taking the refugees on the 20-
minute journey across the Straits are being 
severely punished by Malaysian courts. On 
Tuesday eight tekongs convicted for human 
trafficing were each given an average three 
years in jail, heavily fined and ordered to 
suffer five strokes of the rattan, a furniture 
cane which leaves permanent scars on the back.

Malaysia sees itself as a nation under siege and 
has tightened its anti-refugee laws, both to 
punish the tekongs and send a message to would-
be immigrants. The recent Malaysian immigration 
Act "now allows for jail, fines and even 
whipping for those convicted of harbouring, 
bringing in or abetting illegal immigrants", the 
Deputy Home Minister, Mr Datuk Ong, told 
reporters here.

In the last five days 30 boats with an 
unspecified number of illegal immigrants were 
chased away by the navy and police patrols. Five 
were apprehended, and 96 illegals detained for 
repatriation. No one knows how many got through. 
The Malaysian navy is undergoing cutbacks and 
has not enough vessels to cope.

All of the boat people are ethnic Malays who 
make up the vast majority of the 200-million 
population of Indonesia and they speak the same 
language as the Malaysian people, making it 
possible to escape detection.

There are already up to 800,000 Indonesian 
workers legally employed in Malaysia, many on 
rubber and palm plantations. For years police 
turned a blind eye to illegal immigration which 
provided a source of cheap labour for big 
infrastructure projects, many of which have now 
been abandoned. There are 17,000 illegal workers 
being held for deportation, the Malaysian 
newspapers reported. 

Reuters adds: Malaysia plans to deport some 
200,000 foreign workers when their permits 
expire in August, a senior government official 
said yesterday. The official Bernama news agency 
quoted Immigration Director-General, Mr Aseh Che 
Mat, as saying employers had been told to 
prepare to send back foreign workers in the 
ailing services and construction sectors.
-- 
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