Panhandlers are a familiar presence, whether in the bustling city of New York or the historic alleys in Paris, relying on the generosity of passers-by for survival. Yet, amidst this global phenomenon of panhandling—an act of soliciting small donations from strangers, a distinct subset of individuals that garners less attention but faces equally complex challenges are foreign beggars.
Malaysia, too, is plagued with the problem of “migrant beggars”. And, despite numerous authorities’ attempts to mitigate this problem, the population of foreign beggars within our borders appears to be growing to the extent that it has become a ‘hot topic’ for media criticism and discussion.
Nevertheless, there has been minimal exploration of the problem, particularly from public and social policy viewpoints. It might be surprising to learn that the act of begging, in its occurrence, persistence, and regularity, reflects public and social policy shortcomings.
Foreign beggars’ issues are not new, yet, the panorama of panhandling here is infused with a palpable undercurrent concern due to the extent of panhandling. Some expressed their frustration at the persistence of aggressive panhandling, while others, including merchants and shoppers, vocalised the discomfort they felt.
In response to public complaints, certain individuals have resorted to offensive language and raising their voices to the locals. What exacerbates the situation is the beggars’ persistence—following the people while tugging at their shirts until their monetary demands are met, casting a shadow of discomfort over everyday interactions.
Studies on public attitudes toward panhandling have shown that people’s beliefs are influenced by their personal experiences. Research suggests that increased exposure to panhandling is correlated with reduced sympathy toward panhandlers.
Consequently, as panhandlers become a more and more visible presence, frustrations among locals driven by concerns over perceived threats, economic strain, or cultural disparities have manifested in calls for authorities to deport them. This aligns with the Immigration Act 1959/63 (Act 155) Section 56 (2). If a person has unlawfully entered, re-entered, or remained in Malaysia, he or she is subject to deportation regardless of whether “any proceedings are taken against him in respect of the offence.”
However, is deportation alone the best solution? While deportation may address the immediate concern, it may not tackle the root causes and, therefore, have a long-lasting effect.
A dynamic interplay between the visibility of panhandlers, the evolving sentiments of the local community and, interestingly, even some voices urging the government to provide them with work to assist their survival recognise the need for a more sustainable solution.
The Social Welfare Department (JKM) recently revealed a noteworthy rise in the proportion of detained foreign beggars compared to locals, with 380 foreigners and 180 locals, from January until August this year. This contrasts sharply with 2013, when the ratio was 1:4, with 194 foreigners to 854 locals.
In line with JKM’s statistics, near the Central Market heading towards Petaling Street, now anyone can notice foreigners, likely beggars, sleeping on concrete sidewalks in varying conditions, including even the makeshift shelters—a scene unknown before.
However, a lesser-known fact is that a significant subset of panhandlers may reside in private homes or temporary shelters like hotels.
Reportedly, most of the foreign panhandlers hail from neighbouring countries such as Myanmar, Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, and Cambodia. The age range, gender, and family status within this group exhibit a diverse mix, highlighting the varied backgrounds and circumstances that contribute to their involvement in panhandling. Employment status leans towards unemployment, and their employment history often reflects a history of seeking livelihood opportunities in a foreign land.
These demographics set the stage to delve further into the factors influencing migration decisions. Push factors are the negative aspects of the home country while pull factors are the positive aspects of the receiving country (in this case, Malaysia).
Regrettably, within the realm of what some foreign beggars perceive as favourable conditions—particularly the so-called “professional” beggars—lie significant governance gaps and various cartels operating at border points. This extensive issue of foreign beggars underscores a profound flaw in governance that the current administration has inherited and must urgently address. The automation and digitalisation of all sorts, including extensive use of biometrics and drones, might be one powerful and long-needed step.
“Push” factors that motivate the people to leave their home country include war and conflict, violence and persecution in Myanmar, and unemployment in Indonesia and Cambodia.
On the contrary, Malaysia’s currently relatively stable political situation, comparably, better economic and employment opportunities, still favourable currency-exchange rate, and, probably, better working and living conditions are “pull” factors, making it a central attraction for the low-skilled citizens from low- to middle-income countries in the Southeast Asia region. Also, Malaysia’s reputation for generosity attracts foreign beggars, who claim they can earn up to RM10,000 per month (see “Foreign beggars complained to Chong claiming they were cheated”).
Currently, Malaysia is home to 182,820 registered refugees with UNHCR as of August 2023, mostly Rohingya from Myanmar. Additionally, Malaysia’s porous border with Thailand has become a gateway for human trafficking syndicates, contributing to forced begging, the second-highest form of exploitation in 2012-2017 as noted by JKM.
Panhandling often seems strategic, targeting specific spots like transit hubs, bustling sidewalks, lengthy traffic lights, popular markets, and outdoor eateries where people carry change, foot traffic is high, the potential of higher donations increases, and where there is an opportunity for direct approach.
Furthermore, panhandling fluctuates, but it tends to peak during specific periods like festive seasons, especially Ramadhan—a global seasonal phenomenon. As the streets become more crowded during the festive seasons, beggars capitalise on people’s generosity to collect maximum alms and charity. Previously, JKM recorded a three-fold increase in the number of beggars during Ramadhan (see “Authorities ready to stem beggar influx”, New Straits Times, June 13, 2014).
Therefore, the concern about panhandling issues, especially involving foreigners, is at its peak. To address the persistent panhandling problem, the Malaysian government has implemented several initiatives, including regular raids and arrests, setting up Self-Development Village (DBD), and deporting foreign beggars. Despite these efforts, the problem continues to persist.
Noteworthy, the Immigration Department handles foreign beggars, while refugees are referred to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Emphasising deportation as the primary solution without addressing the underlying reasons why foreigners resort to begging may not serve as a long-term deterrent. This approach overlooks the root causes, potentially leading to a “carousel” where individuals in desperate situations return or are replaced by others.
Such a blanket approach also raises humanitarian concerns as some of them, particularly those from countries like Myanmar, might be facing life-threatening circumstances in their homeland such as ongoing conflict and persecution. As noted by EMIR Research, the Rohingyas in Myanmar were already reeling from the systematic persecution which persisted under the brief period of normal (see “Gender-based violence (GBV) – the plight of Rohingya refugee women”, January 18, 2023).
Moreover, the Immigration Department might lack the expertise or resources necessary to tackle the fundamental social issues contributing to foreign nationals resorting to begging such as poverty, homelessness, and exploitation. Most importantly, if there is a lack of coordination between JKM and Immigration, it could result in a fragmented approach and, thus, a lack of effective response.
Hence, it is high time for Malaysian policymakers to avert public fears while shifting away from blankly seeing foreign panhandlers as threatening nuisances and, instead, empowering truly vulnerable individuals to be self-sufficient for their dignified life.
Therefore, it is essential to adopt a two-fold strategy: ‘internal empowerment, external control’.
Firstly, the initiative should be undertaken to empower vulnerable individuals among the foreign beggars through opportunities for their sustainable livelihoods. For instance, tailored programs offering essential services, education, employment opportunities, and social support to facilitate integration into the local community. Also, food security is one area where Malaysia could vastly benefit from an additional labour force. With the agritech at help, with minimal training required, this additional labour force could help in narrowing the ever-expanding food supply deficit (see “4IR enabled farmers: Solving national food security”, April 22, 2021).
Concurrently, stringent measures must be enforced at the border to regulate and monitor the entry of foreigners with a particular focus on identifying migrant beggars, because most of the detained foreign beggars turn out to be either undocumented or overstayed in the country.
Additionally, the Malaysia Immigration Department, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Social Welfare Department (JKM), and Royal Malaysia Police (PDRM) must collaborate closely to enhance coordination and efficiency in addressing the issue of foreign beggars. This collaborative effort requires a clear power divide and guidelines between the Immigration Department under the Home Affairs Ministry (MOFA) and the Social Welfare Department under the Women, Family, and Community Development Ministry (MWFCD). Urgent attention is needed, especially concerning the ‘protected’ individuals (UNHCR cardholders), as mere deportation may not effectively address the underlying issues.
On top of that, the government should establish accessible public complaints channels. It is evident that the public is confused about which agency to contact regarding foreign beggars. This ambiguity in jurisdiction creates frustration among citizens. Implementing an easily accessible public complaint channel aims to streamline communication efficiency, allowing concerned citizens to share crucial information with the authorities seamlessly. This initiative will foster a more responsive and effective system.
In summary, addressing the escalating issue of foreign beggars in Malaysia necessitates a two-pronged strategy: internally empowering them through tailored programs and externally enforcing stringent border controls. Inter-agency collaboration, jurisdiction clarity, and the establishment of public complaints channels for streamlined communication are among the key recommendations.
Through these steps, we can move beyond the immediate concerns of deportation and toward a more compassionate and long-term solution greater benefiting our nation, recognising that every face we encounter on the street carries a unique story, struggle, and hope.
Farah Natasya is a Research Assistant at EMIR Research, an independent think tank focused on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research.