In my first blog post I begin to discuss my own position as a legal body in Malaysia and some of the inconsistencies that come with categorizing humans in abstract terms of legality.
As a visitor to the state of Malaysia, I am required to leave the country after the three month visa stamped into my passport expires. I can then return to the state’s borders and renew my visa with an identical stamp. Upon entrance, I might be questioned on my intentions within the borders, although this has yet to happen either time I’ve interacted with border control. In general, my experience at the border has been a smooth process. Additionally, if something was to prevent me from entering, returning to my country of origin does not pose any risk to me and so is still a possibility. Validating visas is not such a simple process for individuals who may not have the option to return to their own origins.
Malaysia did not sign the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention. For this reason, the state has no legal requirement to recognize individuals fleeing war or persecution as refugees. The state is not obligated to support them. Despite this, Malaysia non-discriminately allows anyone to acquire three month visas and enter the country in the first place. In ways, this is a good thing; it temporarily gives displaced individuals land, albeit without any conditions to ensure livability. For example, there is no access to government healthcare, education or formal work. On top of this, individuals seeking refuge and asylum have to find a way to remain legal.
There are limited options, for example, individuals can apply for a UNHCR card and relocation. Relocation most often takes years though, for those who are accepted, and for many others the process becomes a cycle of rejection and reapplication. The initial three month visa will therefore inevitably expire. At this point, exiting and reentering to renew it becomes a risk, outstaying the visitor visa becomes a risk, existing “illegally” (according to the authorities) becomes a risk. Any of these may result in an individual’s detention and deportation. Individuals are forced to choose between being undocumented or “illegal” as it is often referred to, and being in their state of origin.
The existence of the “illegal,” entails the existence of the “legal,” and through no action of my own, I’ve been granted the privilege of assuming such a complex title. Wielding an American passport, there seems to be a common assumption that I am a temporary tourist with no particular reason to outstay my welcome. There is the assumption that I have every intention to return to my country of origin. Through this simultaneously necessary and possible action of being stamped by some authority figure, I am legal. For some, this process could be considered an inconvenience. In reality, the simple action of validating my existence and residence within a border is a privilege allowed by my citizenship, my circumstance, as well as by any other preconceived notions a border control official may have about me.
This unquestioned positionality, again, assumed without any effort of my own, simply by being born in the United States of America and living for an extended time in Canada, grants me these assumptions by others and I am therefore given the freedom of mobility. I am privilege to this freedom for various possible reasons. These reasons may include that neither country that I have ever known to be home is in a state of war (although continue to take part in combat abroad including Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and South Sudan to name a few – https://fas.org/sgp/crs/natsec/R42738.pdf). They may include that I am not of a persecuted group. They may include that the countries I have resided in are perceived to be relatively economically stable, livable and socially-conscious. Whether these perceptions are true is another matter. This repetitive validation though, the ability to continuously enter and re-enter Malaysia for legalizing myself, is not available to just anyone. The fact that these perceptions exist, are completely outside of my control and donate to me the freedom of mobility entail that for others; those coming from states experiencing conflicts, economic instability, environmental hazards, the result can be the opposite. Others’ circumstances, similarly outside their control, and the perceptions that might follow, deprive them of their freedom of mobility and with that their legality.
Legality, then, exists as a standard of circumstance; your circumstances and the circumstances of your home-state enable or disable your individual legality. If legality of a human is assumed to be necessary, then the circumstantially legal body in their circumstantially livable state must holds the perception that because their own body has occupied a certain corporeal space for their lifetime, they have the right to continue to occupy this space. By extension, because another is new to this space, this new body should be labeled “illegal” if it tries to share this space. But why should this be necessary? The legalities of both space occupiers are circumstantial, an inconveniently inflexible and uncontrollable criterion to have on a human. The necessity of discriminating between the legal and illegal, something based on chance, is unclear.
In the discussion of someone’s identity, legality is typically not discussed, nor is it something the “legal” actively consider. Through the creation of legal and illegal lines, those who are legal and deny others the right of this position impose illegality on others. They are required to accept and identify with this position, and legality has to be actively considered. The ability for a state to declare particular persons legal or illegal creates a factor for discrimination that is controlled by those who establish legal lines. It is a discrimination that is generally irrelevant to those deemed “legal” and uncontrollable to those subjected to the “illegal” identity. All the while, whether you are relegated to either category is a matter of what space your body has existed in over a period of time.
This then raises questions over whether the space is livable, and whether it will remain reliable in its livability. The combination and unpredictability of conflict and climate change, two predominantly human-induced issues, are only examples of reasons that, more likely than not, it is not possible to ensure the livability of land. So even if the temporarily “legal” persons self-centeredly establish legal and illegal categories of humans, we cannot ensure the maintenance of our own legality. These lines fail to serve whatever purpose we had for establishing human illegality in the first place. Legality reliant on circumstance is a line that anyone may be forced to cross at any time.