(All pictures and videos courtesy of Mien Ly)
“BUKA pintu! Buka pintu!” shout the volunteers through the grill door, into the hallway of the shop lots in Pudu. They are from Rela, a civil volunteer corp formed by the Malaysian government in 1972 to help preserve “peace and national security”. They are conducting a raid on undocumented migrants here, in the middle of Ramadan, on 2 Sept 2009.
A man comes sleepily to the grill door. The three Rela volunteers, dressed in their green combat-like uniforms, demand that he opens the door fast or they will cut it. They speak in Bahasa Malaysia. The man seems to understand them — he slowly comes out of his daze and realises what is going on. He responds in English, “Wait, wait, I go get the keys.”
When he retreats, another Rela volunteer arrives on the scene with a cutter. The Rela volunteers cut the lock on the grill door. When the man returns with his keys, the Rela men say to him in Malay, “You’re slow, we had to cut.”
They proceed down the hallway, and knock on all the other doors. Another door opens, revealing a senior man and teenage boy, both equally dazed from being awakened. The Rela volunteers demand to see their identity cards (ICs) or any documents. The older man asks to see a search permit. The volunteers say, “The police are down there, the immigration [officers] are down there, go ask permits from them.”
The teenage boy produces their ICs — MyKads. “My son,” the old man explains when the Rela volunteers ask about the boy. “I live with my family.” The Rela volunteers demand that the older man open all the doors to see if he is harbouring any undocumented migrants or what they call “Pati” — pendatang asing tanpa izin, or literally “foreign migrants without permission”. No “Pati” is found here. A Rela volunteer apologises for the inconvenience. The rest go upstairs to knock on more doors. The older man swears in Cantonese under his breath at this intrusion, and possibly also because he now has to buy another lock.
At another apartment, a group of women are awakened from their sleep, asked to change out of their pyjamas and bring their passports down for immigration officers to check. Five men in Rela uniforms wait outside their room, constantly knocking, and sometimes threatening to knock the door down if they don’t hurry up. The women only comprehend when a Rela volunteer speaks in Mandarin to them. One woman asks, “Can’t you check now? I’ve to leave early in the morning to Penang for work.” The volunteer responds that he is unable to check their passports — only immigration personnel can — and that it will only take five minutes. The clock on the wall says 2am. The women grudgingly oblige, change into t-shirts and shorts and go downstairs with a Rela volunteer.
Watch videos of Rela’s raid here
On the street downstairs, the women are asked to line up with the other migrants that have been ushered down from nearby apartments. The Rela volunteers ask the migrants to hold their documents. Some people are holding up Malaysian ICs. When a journalist asks about this, Rela volunteers explain that these people were staying with migrants and are thus “suspicious”. Their ICs will be checked by the National Registration Department, whose officers are also part of the night’s raid.
The men and women are lined up, two by two. Some look disorientated or confused, some anxious and annoyed, and some fearful. Accompanied by three Rela women volunteers and a few more Rela men volunteers, the group walk together towards a main post set up by the Malaysian Immigration Department and Rela for the night. During that five-minute walk, sounds of Rela volunteers fill the night. They shout for doors to be opened, for documents to be shown, and at migrants running away. The rest of the neighbourhood is asleep.
The main post is at a corner of some shop houses, two doors from a nightclub that is playing loud techno music. Three immigration officers sit at a portable table. They have a briefcase with a laptop inside it. Beside them, rows upon rows of migrants are made to squat in line. Rela volunteers collect the documents from the migrants and bring them to the immigration officers. The officers then type out the numbers on the documents into their laptop. If the document — whether it is a passport or work permit — does not show up in their machine, the document is considered invalid and thrown into a plastic bag. The person who owns that document will be hauled into one of the three trucks there — two for men, one for women.
The truck looks exactly like the ones used for prisoners — with planks for seats and grills all around. An Indonesian man in the truck is very upset — he says he has been paying around RM3,000 every year for his work permit. He shows his work permit card for the past three years that proves he has been working in Malaysia and says it has never given him problems.
This year, however, his boss gave him the I-Kad instead of the usual work permit. The immigration officer didn’t tell him what was wrong with his I-Kad, just hauled him up the truck. He didn’t get a chance to borrow someone’s phone to call his employer, who is holding his original passport. He says he tried to talk to a Rela volunteer guarding his truck, and was told to keep quiet and stay in the truck.
“The quota for tonight is 50 people. We have surpassed it already — it’s time to close shop,” says an officer who identifies himself as Major Aminuddin. He is the top man for tonight’s raid. He points at his watch — it is now 3am. As the briefcase is being packed, a man arrives, seeking to release his employees. Two women come down from the truck and go off with the man after 10 minutes of negotiations with Rela and immigration. Meanwhile, the people whose documents check out are given back their documents and are told they can now go home. They happily disperse into the quiet night. The trucks that are crammed with people now head back to Rela’s office.
Back at the office
At the office, Rela volunteers segregate the migrants into rows according to nationality. “It is for documentation purposes,” says a volunteer. “I am a refugee,” says a Myanmarese man repeatedly to anyone who is near enough to listen, and repeats the number of his registration card issued by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Three Rela volunteers come over to reprimand him for not keeping quiet.
Just three hours before this, before heading off for the raid, an officer who identified himself as Lieutenant Johan said, “If the person holds a UNHCR card, he [or she] will be released.” But there are UNHCR cards in the plastic bag containing the “invalid” documents and the owners of the cards, mainly Myamarese, are squatting among the migrants here.
When asked about this, Johan says that it is the jurisdiction of the immigration department — if immigration says bring them in, Rela has to bring them in. The documentation here is to be filed as a police report, and then all those rounded up will be taken to the Lenggeng detention camp.
A man, squatting at the back, holds himself tightly and shivers. No one takes any notice. He continues squatting and shivering — he does not have the right documents.
Mien Ly is an independent filmmaker, and went on the raid as a translator for a documentary filmmaker from Australia. She has been given permission by the filmmaker to write about her experience. Before she witnessed the raid, a refugee activist from Malaysian human rights organisation Suaram told her that Rela would be on their best behaviour when being watched by the media.
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