The Plight of Children of Immigrants in Malaysia


By Jennifer Pak
BBC News, Borneo

The children Malaysia does not want

When 13-year-old Karisma wears a purple school uniform and black hijab, she can easily blend in with other Malaysian students. She was born in Malaysia, but the authorities want her to leave.

Her parents are Filipino immigrants working on construction sites in Lahad Datu town in Sabah - Malaysia's easternmost state, on the island of Borneo.

Karisma is one of more than 100,000 children in the country who do not have proper documents.

"A few of them have birth certificates but even the ones with birth certificates will not have access to government schooling here," says Torben Venning, a Danish national who works with children of immigrants in Sabah.

Children of low-skilled immigrants in Malaysia have no access to government-funded schooling

Under Malaysia's immigration rules, low-skilled foreign workers are not allowed to have families. It's one of the ways the government tries to limit the number of immigrants.

So Karisma can only get an education through the learning centre set up by Mr Venning and his wife Rosalyn's charity called PKPKM Sabah.

She is four grades behind her Malaysian peers but still seems affectionate towards her birth place.

"I love Malaysia. It's the best country," says Karisma in fluent Malay, the national language.

Torben Venning and his wife Rosalyn founded a school to cater to 'undocumented' children in Sabah
Difficult future?

However, there are signs that life is about to get tougher for the children of immigrants.

More than a hundred families from the Philippines and Indonesia used to squat in Lobang village near the town centre.

As part of a nationwide campaign to drive illegal immigrants out of Malaysia, the authorities deported many residents who didn't have documents.

Then earlier this year there was a big fire in the village.

The blaze destroyed all of the homes. Only broken wooden planks, charred pieces of clothing and plastic bottles remain on the site.

The BBC cannot confirm who set the fire but foreigners who lost their homes in it - like Jahara binti Sangkola, claim it was done deliberately to send a message that they are not welcome here.

 82904422 jainolandmom
Jainol (R), was born in Malaysia but he hasn't been able to find work

However, Ms Jahara says she has nowhere else to go. She fled from fighting in the southern Philippines three decades ago.

Her son Jainol was born in Malaysia but can't find a job because he says he's not considered to be a Malaysian.

"It's difficult for us as Filipinos to go into any business now," he says.

The government has turned down the BBC's requests for an interview. But it is stated in the 2011-2015 economic plan that the country is overly reliant on cheap, low-skilled foreign labour and this dependency needs to be "gradually reduced".

Key sectors

Official statistics show that the number of low-skilled immigrants has more than doubled over the last 15 years to two million. Human rights groups estimate there are two million more staying illegally.

Most of them are trying to escape from poverty or from conflict and come from neighbouring Indonesia, or Nepal, Bangladesh, and the Philippines.

They work in the key construction, plantation, and manufacturing sectors - jobs shunned by Malaysians.

Malaysia's Tenth Economic Plan

  • Part of a 30-year plan for Malaysia to achieve 'developed country' status by 2020
  • The plan includes nurturing, attracting and retaining top talent
  • The government is also focusing on key growth areas which include oil and gas, tourism, and agriculture

Economist Yeah Kim Leng says Malaysia's labour intensive industries have benefited from this influx of foreign labour but echoes the government view that there are long term costs.

"Basically it retards wages especially for low income groups and then importantly it is an incentive for industries to continue hiring cheap labour rather than upgrading their technology or their manufacturing processes to move up the value chain," he says.

Yet businesses are resisting.

Small shop owners tell the BBC they do not have the money to mechanise and very few locals want to take up the jobs.

Mr Yeah says the transition will get easier as the economic structure changes under Prime Minister Najib Razak's transformation programme.

Finding balance

Until then, Mr Yeah says the government has been pragmatic by allowing more foreign workers in when the economy expands, and restricting work visas when there is a downturn.

At the same time, the government needs to weigh the economic gains against public xenophobia.

A business owner, who didn't want her identity revealed, tells the BBC that she relies on foreign workers but does not agree that immigrants and their children should have more rights.

"If foreigners have the same rights as us then locals will be pushed out," she says.

 82904424 markdevilleres
Mark Devilleres dreams of becoming a chef

Across town, the PKPKM Sabah charity opens another learning centre for undocumented children.

Mark Devilleres, aged 12, stands up to recite the vowels perfectly. Like all children of immigrants he wants more than his father.

"When I grow up I want to be a chef in Malaysia," he says.

However, there may be limits to his dreams in this country.


By Jennifer Pak
BBC News, Borneo


Upcoming IdEA Events

Diaspora Leadership Training

Diaspora Leadership Training (DLT) is a four part workshop series designed to help diaspora members identify and cultivate their skills as leaders in international development. This series is a spin off of the successful diaspora leadership training workshop held during Global Diaspora Week 2014. The series will be led by Semhar Araia - CEO of Semai Consulting, founder of the Diaspora African Women's Network (DAWN), adjunct professor at the George Washington University Elliott School for International Affairs, honoree of the White House Champion of Change Award, and attorney for the implementation of the Eritrea-Ethiopia peace agreement.

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DLT will allow participants to gain critical skills for diaspora leadership in their communities and in international development; as well as provide the opportunity to network with like-minded diaspora leaders. Specifically, participants will:
  • Discover their potential as leaders and change makers
  • Tap into their goals and objectives as diaspora representatives
  • Learn the keys to success for effective leadership and organizing
  • Understand the basics to constituency building for international development
  • Explore different methods of diaspora engagement in international development
  • Connect with like-minded entrepreneurs and "change agents"

All sessions will be held in Washington, D.C and will be limited to 30 participants. Session themes and costs are:

  • May 16: Leadership 101, Cost: $50
  • June 6: Diaspora Agendas & Constituencies, Cost: $30
  • June 27: Diasporas in Development 101, Cost: $30 
  • July 18: Putting Diaspora Leadership Into Practice, Cost: $30

You can choose to attend one, some or all sessions. Register for all four sessions for a 10% discount and receive additional training with a consultant. Receive 30% off the original price as an IdEA member by using the code:IDEADLT2015.

We hope to see you there!

Register for Diaspora Leadership Training

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This webinar will take a look at how cross sector collaboration can help maximize development impact in an efficient and effective way. USAID's Center for International Disaster Information (CIDI) will discuss how NGOs can partner with USAID, and how individuals and organizations can most effectively support disaster relief efforts overseas. The webinar will be held Wednesday, May 6th at 1PM EST.   The Second Annual Global Diaspora Week will be held October 11-17, 2015. This will be an introductory webinar detailing what the goals of this year's GDW are, how to get involved as an event host and tips on throwing a successful event provided by past GDW event hosts! Tune in on Thursday, May 28th at 1PM EST.

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Migration Policy Practice - December 2014 - January 2015 Issue

December 2014 - January 2015



PROJECT SYNDICATE: Peter Sutherland on "The Migration Opportunity"

MAR 2, 2015

LONDON – In the last year, more than 4,000 men, women, and children have lost their lives attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea from Africa to Europe. Their tragic deaths have done nothing to slow the human tide, which is swelling by the week, as smugglers on the coast become increasingly brazen and cruel. Thousands of migrants have been rescued from the frigid waters since the beginning of this year alone.

Against this backdrop – and that of the fear sown by the terrorist attacks in Paris and Copenhagen – the European Union is set to develop a new – and critically important – agenda on migration. When EU commissioners gather to debate how to proceed, they must overcome the temptation to grasp at short-term, knee-jerk solutions, and instead develop a truly creative, comprehensive plan of action both at home and abroad.

The last time Europe faced such a turning point on migration was in 2011, when the Arab Spring triggered a flood of new arrivals fleeing violence and chaos in North Africa. But the moment for bold action – the creation of a Mediterranean Marshall Plan that would channel investment into immigrant integration – passed without being seized. Instead, the EU made a few bureaucratic tweaks to its asylum system and consumed itself with debates about non-issues, such as migrant “welfare cheats."

In 2014, the EU's emergency funding for migration and asylum totaled a mere €25 million ($28 million) – a pathetic exercise in collective action, albeit one supplemented by funds from member states. Last fall, Italy's bold Mare Nostrum sea-rescue operation, which had saved hundreds of lives, was replaced by a far feebler EU initiative that has struggled to carry out its mission.

Adding to the problem is an imbalance of commitment and compassion within the EU itself. Sweden and Germany have taken in the majority of asylum seekers from Syria and elsewhere, while most other EU member states have admitted few or none. The UK, for example, offered just 90 resettlement spots for Syrian refugees last year. (By contrast, Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan are spending billions of dollars to host nearly four million refugees.)

Greece, Italy, and Malta have borne the brunt of the impact of accommodating new arrivals, with all of the financial, social, and political costs this entails. As a result, the ongoing tragedy in the Mediterranean is placing EU solidarity under serious strain.

Continued inaction will not make the problem go away, nor will it benefit European leaders in their next domestic elections. “Cracking down on smugglers," the go-to solution for many in the EU, will take many years to have an impact, given the instability of many North African governments. Meanwhile, further destabilization of the Middle East – a very real prospect – could compromise the security of tens of millions of people who, under international law, would have a legitimate right to claim asylum.

A better, more active approach is needed. The immediate necessary response is resource-intensive but operationally viable: a robust joint EU sea operation with an explicit rescue mandate.

When asylum seekers reach European shores, the EU should take collective financial and administrative responsibility for processing and accommodating them, regardless of where they disembark. And it should take solidarity a step further when it comes to Syrians, equitably distributing the responsibility to host them across all member states.

Meanwhile, in order to lighten smugglers' boats, the EU should commit to resettling many more than the 30,000 Syrian refugees it has pledged to accept thus far. A number closer to 250,000, at least, would seem fair – given the millions being sheltered by Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan.

Meanwhile, EU foreign ministers should intensify talks with African countries in order to establish new, legal, and safe means for those at risk who want to cross the Mediterranean. This could entail extending humanitarian, labor, and family-reunification visas, with applications processed overseas. The EU should consider longer-term goals, like creating a common Mediterranean market to allow North African economies to grow, eventually transforming the region into a destination for migrants rather than a transit zone.

Most important, Europe needs to strengthen itself from the inside out. The continent is in desperate need of a dramatically different approach to diversity. The countries of the EU have two options: They can either make a vain attempt to revert to outdated, mono-ethnic models of statehood, or they can accept diversity with the realization that their national cultures will not only survive, but flourish.

Doing so would in no way entail compromising any core European values. But it would require a commitment to respect all who adopt those values, regardless of their race or religion. Some see the Mediterranean as Europe's soft underbelly. But it is the failure to build stable, diverse societies that is the continent's true Achilles heel.


Peter Sutherland, Chairman of the London School of Economics and Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for International Migration and Development, is former Director General of the World Trade Organization, EU Commissioner for Competition, and Attorney General of Ireland.




Project Syndicate


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