Indian Catholic News

Life and death in Malaysia's shadows

Seeking medical help is filled with danger for undocumented Indonesian and South Asian migrant workers.

 
The graveyard in Sabah, Malaysia, where Kristina and many of her Indonesian compatriots are buried. (ucanews.com photo)
Kuala Lumpur: 

A month after she was knocked down, Kristina Petrus died. She had been too frightened to go to hospital for medical attention as her injury became infected and spread. She developed a fever and the end came soon after.

Her grave, marked by a cross, lies deep in a lush valley in the Crocker Range about 10 kilometers from Kota Kinabalu, the capital of the Malaysian state of Sabah on the island of Borneo. The whole of the surrounding hillside has graves of people from her province in Indonesia.

The Indonesian island of Adonara, which she called home and where her closest relatives are, lies more than 1,700 kilometers to the south — a difficult week-long journey by ship and road.

A distant relative of the 56-year-old undocumented foreign worker in Malaysia speaks of Kristina's death unsentimentally.

There was little they could do, says her niece Juniasti Simon during a chance meeting at the Catholic cemetery early one Sunday morning. She was there to light some candles and tidy the grave to mark the 100 days since her aunt had died.

Medical aid would probably have saved her life, but seeking it at a government hospital risked exposing her and themselves to arrest. Traditional medicines were the only recourse when the other option was punitive government action rather than understanding.

Kristina's employer, whose driver allegedly knocked her down while reversing his employer's vehicle, did little other than permit his house cleaner unpaid leave to nurse herself back to health.

Malaysian employment law provides for a maximum fine of 50,000 ringgit (US$12,800) for hiring an undocumented foreign worker. The government, touting public safety and national security, has even spoken of raising the penalty to 100,000 ringgit.

The threats of fines and imprisonment have done little to stem the tide of illegal migration to Malaysia from Indonesia and South Asia.

Agents and employers remain unfazed. Undocumented foreign workers come at a cut price. They are paid the equivalent of around US$200 a month, about a third lower than the salary of a documented worker. They are given two days off a month. Healthcare is the workers' responsibility.

The Immigration Department recently announced it had begun an operation aimed at arresting undocumented migrants nationwide. National immigration chief Mustafar Ali told national news agency Bernama on Feb. 20 that out of the 1,725 migrants checked on the first day of the operation, 604 had been arrested. They were from Indonesia, Bangladesh and India. Six employers were also arrested.

Such operations are not new. Investigations revealed that government servants are complicit in people smuggling. The government said as much in December 2017 when ordering the transfer of almost half the 1,500 immigration officers at Kuala Lumpur International Airport.

For many, like Kristina, returning to Indonesia for a new pass and re-entry to Malaysia to work legally is not an option. She had little to go back to in her village in Adonara. Her husband had long since died and they had no children. She had been exploited before and it was nothing new.

"She just wanted to make a living ... cleaning the house, washing clothes, doing what she knew best," said Juniasti.

Kristina also didn't mind getting only two days off a month. She feared going out because she lacked documents.

"They were very careful when they went out. I didn't see her often but I know how they [undocumented migrants] always kept an eye out for [immigration and police] officers. They would stand in the shadows so they would not be noticed," Juniasti said.

After Kristina's death, her relatives working in Malaysia passed the hat around for her funeral expenses. The cost was estimated to be about US$500 — a little over two months' wages for a domestic helper. The men chipped in US$50 while the women gave US$15.

The arrangements are an awkward business. Since Kristina's status was illegal, a special process went into motion. Under Malaysian law, a registered medical practitioner must sign off on the death. It must also be reported to the police. But an undertaker takes care of all this for a price, no questions asked.

It's a thriving business.

A government doctor who asked not to be named said there is obviously a need for such assistance.

"There are so many foreign workers. Many are not here legally. They cannot receive medical aid should they need it because of their illegal status. If they come to the hospital with an injury or a serious illness, they will be reported as undocumented," he said.

"There are over a million so-called illegal immigrants in Sabah. Just imagine ... where will they go? You think they will [openly] come for treatment? They'll be risking arrest … also those with them [could be questioned and deported].

"This is why they stay away. They rely on traditional medicines. Some may come [to a hospital] but only when it is critical and often too late. It's not surprising avoidable deaths occur.

"We will treat them, yes, but we also have to follow the rules and report them."

Kristina took the risk and lost. She deserved better.



*The real names of Kristina and Juniasti were changed to protect their identities.

Source: UCAN

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