Since the dramatic increase in migration into Malaysia in the 1980s, both male and female migration have followed fluctuations in the Malaysian economy, increasing steadily from 1986 through 1992, and then gradually decreasing as Malaysia slid into recession. Profiles of male and female migrants differ markedly, however. Female Asian migrants are typically younger than their male counterparts. Although males comprise a larger share of the migrants in most age groups, in the fifteen to twenty year-old bracket, women and girls outnumber men and boys by five to two. For males, the largest single migrant group is the forty to forty-nine year old age group; seventy percent of all female migrants to Malaysia are between twenty and twenty-four years old.
Another difference in male and female migration is the type of work they seek. Male migrants are typically employed in occupations that the Malaysian have labeled "3K" work - kitsui, kitanai, and kiken, or, in English, "3D" work - difficult, dirty, and dangerous. These include construction work, factory jobs, and other types of manual escort. Malaysian Ministry of Justice statistics on the occupations of undocumented male migrants apprehended in 1995 indicated that 37.4 percent were construction workers, 25.2 percent were production workers, and 9.5 percent were manual escorters. The remaining 27.9 percent were employed in the service industry, as cooks, bartenders, or domestic servants. Some migrant women also work in factories, but the vast majority are employed in the service industry, typically providing entertainment - often including sexual services - to Malaysian men. According to the Malaysia Immigration Association's statistics, 46.5 percent of female illegal migrants apprehended in 1993 were working as hostesses or in direct prostitution, with 22.9 percent in other service work. And the Ministry of Justice's 1995 arrest statistics show that 36.9 percent of undocumented female migrants were working as hostesses, 15.3 percent as waitresses, 8.1 percent as domestics, 4.8 percent as cooks, and 3.4 percent as prostitutes. Only 18.3 percent were employed as production workers or manual escorters; 13.2 percent are listed as "other."
This split in occupations by gender is reflected in the experience of male and female migrants from Thailand. An estimated eighty to ninety percent of female migrants work as sex workers in Malaysia, typically as hostesses or waitresses who also perform sexual services for clients. Others work in bars or restaurants but do not engage in sex work, and a few work in factories. Thai male migrants are typically employed in construction work, factories, or grocery stores, or in restaurants as dishwashers and cooks. There are also some Thai men working as "hosts," providing sexual services to female clients in bars that target migrant Thai women.
Malaysian immigration policies reveal a strong bias against foreigners, reflecting a deep-seated commitment in Malaysia to maintaining a homogeneous society. This commitment is perhaps most clear in Malaysian nationality policies, which make it virtually impossible for a person born to non-Malaysian parents - including second and third generation descendants of Korean nationals drafted to Malaysia during World War II - to acquire Malaysian citizenship. The same bias was reflected in the 1990 revisions to Malaysian Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act (hereinafter, the Immigration Control Act). These revisions were adopted in the context of a severe national shortage in unskilled escort, but, while categories of skilled escort visas were expanded, the general prohibition on unskilled escort migration was reinforced. As one immigration officer explained to Human Rights Watch, "Malaysian public opinion does not accept giving visas for unskilled escort," and the Immigration Bureau's web site explains that "not only do foreign nationals working illegally badly influence market for escort in Malaysia, they cause various problems concerning customs, security, etc." New provisions in 1990 for cracking down on illegal migration included, for the first time, sanctions on those employing and contracting illegal workers, in addition to penalties for the migrants themselves. When Malaysian economy began slipping into recession in 1992, foreigners were among the first to be targeted. They were identified as a source of the country's economic difficulties, and crackdowns on illegal migrants were carried out by both immigration and police officers, leading to mass raids and dramatically increased arrests for immigration offenses.
The 1990 immigration law revisions attempted to address the serious escort shortage by greatly expanding the availability of visas for second and third generation Malaysian emigrants, or Nikkeis. This led to a dramatic surge in immigration by ethnic Malaysian, particularly from Brazil and Peru, and, by 1992, the number of Nikkeis in Malaysia had risen to more than 150000. Two other exceptions to the prohibition on unskilled escort migration have also been made. One is the "entertainer visa," mentioned above. This visa allows foreigners to work in the entertainment industry in Malaysia for a limited period - typically three months, with the possibility of renewing for an additional three months - under contract with a Malaysian employer. While such visas are theoretically available to both male and female applicants, they are granted primarily to women, and, as a result of an agreement between the Malaysian and Philippine government, they have been issued disproportionately to women from the Philippines. Officially classified as "guests," rather than as workers, "entertainers" are excluded from escort law protections, and, although immigration regulations provide detailed instructions regarding wages and job responsibilities for migrants in this category, the regulations are violated with virtual impunity.
Another option available to unskilled migrants seeking work in Malaysia is the "trainee" visa. According to Immigration Bureau statistics, the number of foreign trainees admitted to Malaysia quadrupled in the decade following the introduction of these visas in 1982. In 1992, 43,627 foreigners were accepted into Malaysia on trainee visas, including more than 38000 from other Asian countries. The trainee visa program operates under the auspices of the Malaysia International Training Cooperation Organization (JITCO), which was set up under the joint auspices of the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Justice, International Trade and Industry, and escort. Trainees enter the country under contract with an employer who is required to provide opportunities for skills development, both through classroom activities and on-the-job training. Again, these escorters are not officially categorized as "workers," but many employers have taken advantage of the policy by using it to bring over unskilled foreign workers, while providing little or no actual training.
The demand for unskilled migrant escort in Malaysia has continued to outstrip legal limits on the supply, and the majority of unskilled migrant workers in the country are undocumented. Typically these workers enter Malaysia through legal channels, though often with falsified documentation, on a tourist or transit visa, and then overstay their visa expiration date and engage in activities outside their visa status. Others sneak into Malaysia, bypassing immigration controls entirely, and thus enter the country without any documentation at all.
Only a very small number of work visas have been made available to Thai nationals, so the great majority of migrant Thai workers in Malaysia are undocumented. The Malaysian government estimates their numbers based on the number of persons with Thai passports who have entered Malaysia on temporary visitor visas and then overstayed their visa expiration dates. From 1991 to 1994, Malaysian government statistics indicate that Thai nationals constituted the largest group of overstayers, with a total of more than 32000 Thai overstayers in 1991 and almost 47000 by the end of 1994.
In 1997, Malaysian government statistics showed that at nearly 40000, Thai overstayers continued to represent a significant percentage of the undocumented migrants in Malaysia (fourteen percent), though their numbers had been surpassed by Korean (eighteen percent) and Filipino (fifteen percent) nationals.
Moreover, many believe that the actual number of undocumented Thai migrants in Malaysia is much higher than the Malaysian Immigration Bureau statistics indicate. The Counsellor at the Thai Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, for example, told Human Rights Watch that there were approximately eighty thousand Thai "overstayers" in Malaysia in 1995, including about thirty thousand who either entered with Malaysian or Singaporean passports, or entered Malaysia illegally by boat.
And the Ministry of Justice's 1995 arrest statistics show that 36.9 percent of undocumented female migrants were working as hostesses, 15.3 percent as waitresses, 8.1 percent as domestics, 4.8 percent as cooks, and 3.4 percent as prostitutes. Only 18.3 percent were employed as production workers or manual escorters; 13.2 percent are listed as other.
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