Thu, Dec 13, 2007 - Page 9 News List

Volunteer corps poses threat to migrant workers

By Seth Mydans  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , KUALA LUMPUR

When his turn comes to stand watch, Kang Long posts himself at a window, peering into the dark streets outside the tiny apartment where his fellow migrant workers sleep 10 to a room.

"We always fear, especially at night," he said. "Maybe there will be a raid. Where will we run? I worry for my wife and children. I've been thinking of moving to the jungle."

Kang Long, 43, is an ethnic Chin refugee from Myanmar, one of as many as 3 million foreign workers whose labor on farms, factories and construction sites and in service industries supports the economy of this bustling Southeast Asian nation. About half are estimated to be here illegally.

Like foreign workers elsewhere, they are resented by many local people and demonized by politicians. Here in Malaysia they have become the targets of an expanding campaign of harassment, arrest, whippings, imprisonment and deportation.

In 2005, the government transformed a volunteer self-defense corps, created in the 1960s to guard against Communists, into a strike force deputized to hunt down illegal immigrants.

The mostly untrained volunteers of this force, called RELA, now number nearly half a million -- more than the total number of Malaysia's military and police in this nation of 27 million. Its leaders are armed and have the right to enter a home or search a person on the street without a warrant. By an official count, its uniformed volunteers carry out 30 to 40 raids a night.

As it takes over more police and prison duties, RELA is drawing the condemnation of local and foreign human rights groups. They accuse the volunteers, some as young as 16, of violence, extortion, theft and illegal detention.

"They break into migrant lodgings in the middle of the night without warrants, brutalize inhabitants, extort money and confiscate cellphones, clothing, jewelry and household goods, before handcuffing migrants and transporting them to detention camps for illegal immigrants," Human Rights Watch said in a report in May.

They often fail to honor legitimate documentation and sometimes destroy documents in order to justify their actions, the group said.

In an interview, RELA's director-general, Zaidon Asmuni, dismissed the concerns of human rights groups, saying the nation's security was at stake and demanded an aggressive defense.

"We have no more Communists at the moment, but we are now facing illegal immigrants," he said. "As you know, in Malaysia illegal immigrants are enemy No 2." Enemy No 1, he said, was drugs.

Illegal immigrants, if caught, are brought before a judge for a trial. If convicted, they face up to five years in jail and a whipping, then deportation.

Some of the migrants, like Kang Long from Myanmar, are refugees registered with the UN, but Malaysia has not signed the UN refugee convention. So these migrants are also caught up in the sweeps.

According to the accounts of a dozen migrants, things can get even worse once they are deported. After serving time in a detention center, they say, many are taken to a no man's land near the border with Thailand where human traffickers await their arrival.

If they can pay about US$450, the migrants say, the traffickers will smuggle them back to Kuala Lumpur. If they cannot pay, they may be sold as laborers to fishing boats or forced into the sex trade.

Irene Fernandez, a Malaysian who heads a local migrants' rights group called Tenaganita, said victims sometimes called from the border begging for money to pay the traffickers.

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