Region: Illegal Migrants A Thorn in Relations


Deborah Johnson

After repeated extensions of its amnesty for illegal migrants, the Malaysian government as of 1 March 2005 has begun its countrywide operation to roundup and deport those remaining in the country. Tough action was mooted in the lead-up to 'Ops Tegas' including possible caning (enabled by a 2002 amendment to the Immigration Act), being charged in court, detention, deportation and being barred for life from returning. It has equipped some 500,000 enforcers from Rela (a People's Volunteer (civil defence) Corps, from which some 25,000 officers have been specifically trained with the remaining 315,000 members able to provide support as needed), the Immigration Department and the police to take part in the operation. With a new set of rules effective from 1 February, Rela officers will have the power to enter premises they suspect of harbouring illegal immigrants without a warrant, to detain people unable to produce valid documents and bring action against their employers. They have been equipped with long wooden batons, walkie-talkies and identifying uniforms. Before the amnesty began on 29 October 2004, it was estimated that there were more than a million illegal workers in the country, mostly from Indonesia but also from the Philippines, Myanmar, Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka. Nearly 400,000 left during the first three months of the amnesty without facing any penalty, but an estimated 400,000 have remained, choosing to work illegally rather than face of unemployment at home. This continues to be a sticking point in bilateral relations between Malaysia and its neighbours.

On the first stopover of his visits to ASEAN partners as the new Indonesian president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono met with Malaysian Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Badawi on 14-15 February. High on their agenda which included the issues of Islamic militancy, Malaysia's role in the reconstruction of Indonesia's tsunami-hit Aceh province, and economic and trade cooperation, was the issue of illegal migration. Subsequently, Indonesia's Manpower and Transmigration Minister, Fahmi Idris, was reported to have delivered a letter addressed to the Prime Minister Badawi. (A previous letter had resulted in a one-month extension to the amnesty period because Indonesia was ill prepared to handle mass deportations after the December 26 tsunami disaster.) This time there was to be no extension; nor a request for an extension. The Indonesian and Philippines governments earlier appealed to their citizens to take advantage of the amnesty and obtain the special travel documents to enable them to leave Malaysia before the deadline. The Indonesian government was reported prior to the February summit meeting to have engaged lawyers in Malaysia to sue Malaysian employers who allegedly had refused to pay the wages of their Indonesian workers ahead of their departure. This move ruffled feathers in Kuala Lumpur and was subsequently dropped.

Human rights groups have raised their concerns over the way the Malaysian has planned to deal with 'undocumented migrants' - summary arrests, detentions in less than pleasant conditions, lack of protection for victims of trafficking or for those with legitimate claims for refugee status. There were concerns that some (those from Aceh) would not have homes to return to. But generally, this move by the government has wide support from the general populace. They see illegal migrants as responsible for a fair share of the crime in the country. Indeed, there is no lack of media reports of criminal acts or 'riots' by illegal workers. Less coverage is given to the kinds of work that they do or they ways they have actually contributed to the country (for example in the many construction projects, including the construction of the KLCC twin tower building).

National borders are a relatively recent phenomena in this region. In this part of Southeast Asia, there has always been a lively trade in goods and services and a concomitant flow of people across the region. However, governments today seek to have control over their populations and economies. This means regulating the flow of skilled and unskilled workers - including domestic, construction and agricultural workers as well as IT specialists, doctors, etc. Malaysia will continue to need 'guest workers'. To this end, Prime Minister Badawi during his recent visit to Islamabad discussed the possibility of recruiting Pakistani workers to work in Malaysia. Discussions have also been held with Vietnam. A significant number of Indonesians have since last November been returning to Malaysia after going back home to obtain the necessary documents. Nonetheless, in a context where maritime and land borders are rather porous and difficult to police, Malaysia's attempt to enforce its migration laws may be a little like the Dutch boy attempting to plug a leaking dyke with his finger.

The issue is a complex one. Some unscrupulous employers, it seems, prefer hiring (illegal) foreign workers because they can be exploited and made to work longer hours. Foreign labour has the overall effect of depressing wages and benefits for local workers, while having positive effects for the Malaysian economy. The Malaysian government has been seen as changing its policy stance to suit the prevailing economic and political circumstances-this latest move has been interpreted as an extension of the Badawi government's clean-up and anti-corruption drive and an attempt to emphasise 'the rule of law'. Malaysian employers have in the interim to deal with the bureaucratic complexities of hiring foreign workers to make up their labour deficits. In sending countries, unscrupulous employment agents have been known to issue false documents and extort fees from unsuspecting clients. Complicated bureaucratic procedures when applying for work permits in Indonesia can make them costly; and a weak legal framework and corrupt immigration officials add to the problem. Then there is the problem in Sabah of how to deal with the 5,000 abandoned or orphaned children of Filipino and Indonesian descent. These street children aged between 5 and 12 years old are stateless, have no place to live (they can't be detained at temporary Immigration detention centres because they are minors) and have no rights to an education in Malaysia. If they were deported, they most probably would not know where to find their families.

As governments wrestle with the issues involved-and it is encouraging that the Indonesian and Philippines governments to the highest level have come out in support of its citizens abroad, hopefully individuals who have sought to improve their lives and those of their families by migrating to work will be treated humanely and with dignity and not as pawns in, or victims of, actions designed to get the message through that the government in question is serious about dealing with the issue.

WATCHPOINT: The manner in which the Malaysian government conducts its roundup of 'illegals' will come under scrutiny, as will the responses of governments of sending nations towards regularising the flow of workers and also ensuring that their citizens are justly dealt with (in terms of wages and conditions) during their time abroad.


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