PENANG STATE — In the tourist draw of George Town in Penang in northern Malaysia, the Burmese Buddhist temple has become the locus of social and economic support for migrants from Myanmar.
“l was a contractor at home, but left Burma [Myanmar] 19 years ago, arriving in Malaysia after crossing from Thailand,” said Aung Tin, a foreman on the construction site of a new pagoda, as Buddhist temples are called in Myanmar.
At the construction site, all 14 staff supervised by Aung Tin – who would only talk to IRIN using a pseudonym – are Burmese migrants.
“I left as soon as I could after the 1990 elections,” said Aung Tin. “The economic situation in the country was bad for years before then, and I had not been able to generate enough work. When I saw that the army was going to keep things the same, it became clear that I could not make a living,”
In 1990, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won the last election held in Myanmar, but the military rulers overturned the result, maintaining a decades-long iron grip on power.
Aung Tin left behind a wife and two sons, whom he has not seen since. His boys are now grown up, and like their father, want to leave their home country.
When Cyclone Nargis devastated Myanmar in 2008, his family’s home was one of more than three million destroyed. “All my money was sent home to help repair my house,” he said.
Myanmar is one of the most impoverished countries in the region, and ranks 138 out of 182 countries surveyed in the UN Development Programme’s (UNDP) 2009 Human Development Report.
Limited employment prospects encourage many to look for opportunities in neighbouring countries. Thailand is the main destination for Burmese workers, but Malaysia is also favoured, along with Bangladesh and India, according to a 2008 UN report on migration in East and Southeast Asia.
Accurate figures of how many Burmese are leaving Myanmar are difficult to obtain because much of the movement is irregular, say civil society groups.
Malaysia is heavily dependent on foreign labour for its construction and plantation industries, and is a magnet for migrant workers in the region. According to government statistics, there were 92,020 registered Burmese workers in 2006, comprising 5 percent of the total registered workers.
Rights groups, however, say there are also thousands of unregistered Burmese in the country; the Kuala Lumpur-based Burma Workers’ Rights Protection Committee estimates there are about 500,000 registered and unregistered migrants from Myanmar in Malaysia.
And as of May 2009, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said it had registered 50,000 people of concern from Myanmar, including refugees and asylum-seekers.
Aung Tin’s story is similar to those of many migrant workers in Malaysia. He had a work permit originally but has veered back and forth between legal and illegal status since.
Many Burmese find work at construction sites, factories and food outlets, according to Malaysian rights groups. If they were recruited or brought in to work at factories, they are often provided with accommodation. But while some employers provide proper living facilities, others force their workers to live in overcrowded and cramped conditions.
Rights groups say many Burmese migrants as well as refugees do not carry legal documents, and face arrest, detention and deportation by the Malaysian authorities.
Deportees, both migrant workers and refugees, are then vulnerable to human traffickers at the Malaysia-Thailand border, who demand huge sums of money to help them get back into Malaysia, they say.
“Another problem that the Burmese face is extortion from the police,” said Temme Lee, refugee coordinator for Malaysian rights group Suaram.
“Due to their lack of proper documentation, Burmese are often stopped by police. The police threaten to arrest them and demand money from them,” she told IRIN.
Despite his perilous and often haphazard situation, Aung Tin is one of the better-off migrants, taking in 50 Malaysian ringgit (US$14.80) per day as foreman at the construction project at the Burmese Buddhist temple.
Penang is one of Malaysia’s main economic and industrial centres and the pagoda provides social and religious support for the Burmese community.
“The monks look after us here, and try to give us work,” he said.Show