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«AKM Ahsan Ullah, Yusnani Mohamed Yusof, Maria D'Aria Universiti Brunei Darussalam Working Paper No.20 Institute of Asian Studies, Universiti Brunei ...»

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How safe is Safe?

‘Safe migration’ in Southeast Asia

AKM Ahsan Ullah, Yusnani Mohamed Yusof, Maria D'Aria

Universiti Brunei Darussalam

Working Paper No.20

Institute of Asian Studies, Universiti Brunei Darussalam

Gadong 2016


Editorial Board, Working Paper Series

Dr. Paul J. Carnegie, Institute of Asian Studies, Universiti Brunei Darussalam.

Professor Lian Kwen Fee, Institute of Asian Studies, Universiti Brunei Darussalam.


Associate Professor AKM Ahsan Ullah is Deputy of Dean (Graduate and Research) of FASS at UBD.

He has published widely in his field and also worked for a number of international development, research and academic organizations including Plan International; BRAC; South East Asian Research Centre (SEARC), City University of Hong Kong, Asian Institute of Technology (AIT); University of Ottawa, Saint Mary’s University, McMaster University; the American University in Cairo (AUC). He has also provided consultancy services to the World Bank and Dalhousie University and IDD. Prior to joining the UBD, he was the Associate Director of the Center for Migration and Refugee Studies (CMRS), and Assistant Professor of the School of Global Affairs and Public Policy (GAPP) at the American University in Cairo (AUC).

Contact: ahsan.ullah@ubd.edu.bn Dr. Yusnani Mohamed Yusof’s current research focuses on urban social-ecological systems especially the sustainability of revitalising cities. This is motivated by renewed interest in the dynamic effect of improving the physical urban realm of cities where there is relatively little consensus in the path to regenerate urban areas. She is currently addressing this shortcoming of existing models by exploring a few empirical studies on cities, characterize the city though revitalisation programs, social-migration studies, design, organisational framework and implementation.

Contact: myyusnani@gmail.com Maria D’Aria is a PhD candidate at the School of Political and Social Science at the University of Edinburgh. Her PhD thesis investigates the role that secular social movements had during the Egyptian counterrevolution. She holds an MA in International Relations from Dublin City University, and a BA in Politics and International Relations from the University of Catania. She worked as research assistant for the American University in Cairo, and she is currently a tutor at the University of Edinburgh.

Contact: maria.d’aria@ed.ac.uk The Views expressed in this paper are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute of Asian Studies or the Universiti Brunei Darussalam.

© Copyright is held by the author(s) of each working paper; no part of this publication may be republished, reprinted or reproduced in any form without permission of the paper’s author(s).


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Safety issues of migration have come to the fore in the public and academic discourse in recent years. People seek irregular means of passage in their effort to migrate overseas. As a result, their lives are at put at risk. Female migrants are more vulnerable than their male counterparts in unsafe migration conditions. This paper tries to understand the perception of migrants about their own migration experiences. About 94 female migrants were selected based on snow ball and convenient sampling from two destinations: Thailand and Malaysia. The study shows that most of the respondents underwent (pre-migration, enroute, post-migration) extremely dangerous and unsafe experiences. Gross human rights violation by travel agencies, brokers and employers as well were revealed. Safe migration entails a series of policies, programs, and initiatives which focus on all aspects of migration- from education of potential migrants in the home countries to policies which protect migrants while in transit, to the protection of human rights in holding centers, and proper border control and policing. Safe migration requires the participation of all countries involved in the migration process in creating more opportunities for safe migration by empowering and educating people on migration options and by creating policies that protect human rights.

Key words: Human rights, safe migration, trafficking, Southeast Asia

3 List of IAS Working Papers

1. King, Victor T., Culture and Identity: Some Borneo Comparisons. Working Paper No. 1 Gadong: Institute of Asian Studies, Universiti Brunei Darussalam 2012.

2. Evers, Hans-Dieter and Solvay Gerke, Local Knowledge and the Digital Divide: Focus on Southeast Asia.

Working Paper No. 2. Gadong: Institute of Asian Studies, Universiti Brunei Darussalam 2012.

3. King, Victor T., Borneo and Beyond: Reflections on Borneo Studies, Anthropology and the Social Sciences.

Working Paper No. 3. Gadong: Institute of Asian Studies, Universiti Brunei Darussalam 2013.

4. King, Victor T., UNESCO in Southeast Asia: World Heritage Sites in Comparative Perspective. Working Paper No. 4. Gadong: Institute of Asian Studies, Universiti Brunei Darussalam 2013.

5. Purwaningrum, Farah, Knowledge Transfer Within an Industrial Cluster in the Jakarta Metropolitan Area.

Working Paper No. 5. Gadong: Institute of Asian Studies, Universiti Brunei Darussalam 2013.

6. Evers, Hans-Dieter, Ndah, Anthony Banyouko & Yahya, Liyana, Epistemic Landscape Atlas of Brunei Darussalam. Working Paper No. 6. Gadong: Institute of Asian Studies, Universiti Brunei Darussalam 2013.

7. Carnegie, Paul J., Is the Indonesian Transition a Model for the Arab Spring? Working Paper No. 7. Gadong:

Institute of Asian Studies, Universiti Brunei Darussalam 2013.

8. Lian, Kwen Fee, Citizenship Regimes and the Politics of Difference in Southeast Asia. Working Paper No. 8.

Gadong: Institute of Asian Studies, Universiti Brunei Darussalam 2013.

9. Purwaningrum, Farah, Ariff Lim, Syamimi, Evers, Hans-Dieter & Ndah, Anthony Banyouko, The Governance of Knowledge: Perspectives from Brunei Darussalam and Malaysia. Working Paper No. 9. Gadong: Institute of Asian Studies, Universiti Brunei Darussalam 2014.

10. Facal, Gabriel, Hyper-centralization of Political Power and Fragmentation of Local Authority Networks in Banten (Indonesia). Working Paper No.10. Gadong: Institute of Asian Studies, Universiti Brunei Darussalam 2014.

11. Hussainmiya, B.A. and Mail, Asbol Haji, “No Federation Please-We Are Bruneians”: Scuttling the Northern Borneo Closer Association Proposals. Working Paper No.11. Gadong: Institute of Asian Studies, Universiti Brunei Darussalam 2014.

12. Abdul Hakim, Mufidah. Pengangun as Ritual Specialist in Brunei Darussalam. Working Paper No.12. Gadong:

Institute of Asian Studies, Universiti Brunei Darussalam 2014.

13. Bensaoud, Mariam. Between R2P and the ASEAN Way:The case of Myanmar’s Cylcone Nargis. Working Paper No.13. Gadong: Institute of Asian Studies, Universiti Brunei Darussalam 2015.

14. Abdul Razak, Nurul Umillah Binti, Anuar, Adira Rehafizzan Binti, Pg. Mohd Sahar, Dk. Siti Nurul Islam Binti & Matsuni, Nur Hidayah Binti. Domestic Maids in Brunei: A Case Study. Working Paper No.14. Gadong:

Institute of Asian Studies, Universiti Brunei Darussalam 2015.

15. Ibrahim, Zawawi. From Island to Nation-state Formations and Developmentalism: Penan Story-telling as Narratives of ‘territorialising space’ and Reclaiming Stewardship. Working Paper No.15. Gadong: Institute of Asian Studies, Universiti Brunei Darussalam 2015.


16. Bui, Cuong The. Social Stratification in the Southeast Region of Viet Nam. Working Paper No. 16 Gadong:

Institute of Asian Studies, Universiti Brunei Darussalam 2015.

17. Sagoo, Kiran. Reconsidering Ethnicity: Classification and Boundary Formation. Working Paper No. 17. Gadong:

Institute of Asian Studies, Universiti Brunei Darussalam 2015.

18. Ibrahim, Zawawi. Disciplining Rock Music and Identity Contestations: Hybridization, Islam and New Musical Genres in Contemporary Malaysian Popular Music. Working Paper No.18. Gadong: Institute of Asian Studies, Universiti Brunei Darussalam 2015.

19. Shui, Kong Ho. Digital Memoir of the South China Sea. Working Paper No. 19. Gadong: Institute of Asian Studies, Universiti Brunei Darussalam 2015.

20. Ullah, AKM Ahsan; Yusof, Yusnani Mohamed; D’Aria, Maria. How safe is Safe? ‘Safe migration’ in Southeast Asia. Working Paper No. 20. Gadong: Institute of Asian Studies, Universiti Brunei Darussalam 2016.

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AKM Ahsan Ullah, Yusnani Mohamed Yusof, Maria D'Aria


Safety issues about population migration are more pronounced these days than ever. In 1990s the Dover tragedy and in 2000s the Mediterranean tragedy—a few of the known ones— remind us (Ullah, 2007) about the gravity of ‘unsafeness’ of migration. In the Dover tragedy 58 Chinese migrants who were discovered in an airtight 18 metre-long container at the port of Dover were found dead. Is there any standard measure by which we can consider a migration process safe or unsafe? There are ongoing debates about what constitute safe migration. While much has been written on the safety issues of migrants, what remains little attended is the standard by which we can define and measure safety. Irrespective of the avenues through which migrant populations get to the destinations, the entire process involves certain degrees of risk and uncertainty. Migrants who undertakes the journey under G2G (government to government) agreements or through a legal process and the one who is trafficked-in face a different spectrum of risks.

In 2014, about 170,000 migrants were rescued and brought to Italy (UNHCR, 2015). The Canadian Coast Guard intercepts cargo ships crammed with potential migrants on and off (Armstrong, 1999).

Between 2010 and early 2014 in the Caribbean Sea, about 15,190 people in 440 recorded maritime incidents sought safety via boats carrying migrants. During this period, some 240 migrants drowned, and 176 were missing at sea (Hetfield, 2014). The Turkish Coast Guard intercepted 1,754 migrants in Mersin province alone in 2014 (Hetfield, 2014). Libyan rescuers have recovered the bodies of around 170 people after a boat carrying irregular migrants from sub-Saharan Africa sank at sea in March 2015. In May 2015, a boat sailed from Cox’s Bazar with estimated 200 migrants 6 went missing. Bangladesh’s coast guard and border forces have launched crackdowns on economic migrants, confiscating their ships and arresting a number of human traffickers. As we write this paper (May 2015) thousands of potential migrants from Bangladesh and Myanmar are adrift in Andaman Sea. A few hundred already reported dead and many more in critical condition. After the Dover tragedy, again in 2015 safety issues of migrants came to the fore once more (Ullah and Hossain, 2009; Ullah 2014; Ullah, Hossain and Islam, 2015) when mass graves of trafficked victims and potential migrants were discovered in Thai forests (Ullah, 2015). Similar findings were reported in Ullah’s (2010) work entitled ‘rationalizing migration decision’. While economists may seek to explain migration as a function of demand and supply, population scientists and demographers see migration as a response to population pressure and fertility patterns. Sociologists and anthropologists offer different sets of explanations related to histories, cultures and social factors. However, it is difficult to make sense of why thousands of people migrate knowing they may die.

People moving from Myanmar, Cambodia, Vietnam, Lao PDR, and Indonesia neighboring countries have been on the increase in the last three decades. The majority of them end up in manufacturing, construction, oil palm and rubber plantations, domestic work, entertainment industries, services and agriculture in Malaysia and Thailand. Thailand is home to about 2.5 million migrants, about half (1.2 million) may be unauthorized (Ullah and Hossain 2011). Of the total migrants about half of them are females (Harima, 2012). In Malaysia there are about 2 million documented migrant workers, and another two million undocumented workers (Harima, 2012).

The body of literature that has been generated so far regarding migrant workers in Malaysia and Thailand has touched upon a myriad of issues such as vulnerability, rights of migrants, and their contribution to development. However, very little is known about the female migrants who migrate to Malaysia and Thailand voluntarily or by force risking their lives at every point (pre-migration, enroute, post migration and return) of the migration process. It is assumed that certain risks at any given point of the migration process are given but they could be different at different phases of migration process. Elias (2008) hence argues that rights-based approach to migration can be differentiated from other prevailing understandings of migration based around security/immigration control (policing borders, criminalizing ‘illegal’ migrants) and economic 7 efficiency (viewing migrants as ‘commodities’). This paper delves into how female migrants made their way to Malaysia and Thailand, and evaluates whether they consider their migration was safe or not. A set of recommendation has been made based on the findings.

Method The study is based on primary information collected through a survey of 94 female migrant respondents (29 from Cambodia, 24 from Lao PDR, 19 from Myanmar and 15 from Vietnam and 7 from Indonesia). They were selected and interviewed in Malaysia and Thailand using a checklist.

Gaining access to the sample was challenging. It was as well challenging as to what technique to be used to locate them. In selecting the participants we resorted to snow-balling technique due to the fact that it was difficult to apply random sampling. Research assistants recruited were from Thailand, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia.

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