Illegal migrants rush to escape tough new laws

Foreign workers who overstay their welcome in Malaysia face five years in jail, caning and fines: Government crackdown

Peter Goodspeed
National Post, with files from news services

Friday, August 02, 2002

Tens of thousands of illegal immigrants descended on Malaysia's ports yesterday, looking for a ship back home to Indonesia and the Philippines to avoid tough new immigration laws.
Under harsh legislation that took effect yesterday, foreigners caught working without a permit in Malaysia could face fines of US$2,600, mandatory jail terms of five years and six lashes of a rattan cane.
Anyone who employs or houses an illegal migrant is subject to the same penalties.
Caning or whipping is a supplementary form of punishment in Malaysia for about 40 crimes. These include drug offences, rape and attempted rape, kidnapping, firearms offences, attempted murder, causing grievous injury, child abuse, robbery and theft.
Immigration laws introduced in March gave illegal immigrants an amnesty, which lasted until yesterday, to give them time to leave the country without fear of being arrested.
Mohamad Jamal Kamdi, Malaysia's Immigration Director-General, said anyone found without a work permit, a ticket home or a special pass to prove they are leaving by a certain date will be arrested and charged.
The government says 318,272 illegal immigrants have left, most of them -- 269,503 -- Indonesians.
Migrant workers make up 20% of Malaysia's workforce and have played a huge role in the country's rapid economic growth. There are about 750,000 legal migrant workers, but anywhere between 600,000 and two million illegal immigrants as well.
Two-thirds of the illegal foreign workers are thought to be Indonesian. Most of the rest come from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and the Philippines.
They frequently live outside the law in a constant game of hide and seek with the police after overstaying their work permits or entering Malaysia without them.
In the five years since Asia's economic meltdown in 1997, the demand for foreign workers has slowed, while unemployment in Malaysia has soared to its highest level in 10 years, about 3.7%.
With its small population and relatively prosperous economy, Malaysia has long been a magnet for people from its poorer neighbours. Drawn by dreams of a better life, they have triggered fears they threaten Malaysia's stability.
Malaysia blames the migrants for contributing to a growth in crime. There is also growing concern Islamic militants from Indonesia and Muslim rebels from the southern Philippines have infiltrated the country.
In advance of the latest immigration crackdown, thousands of illegal squatter shacks were bulldozed and security was tightened in key areas. Shipping in Malaysian waters was restricted to special seaways to limit the operation of small boats that specialize in smuggling people.
But some Malaysians are unhappy with the immigration crackdown. Many employers say they rely on the illegal immigrants to fill menial and low-paying jobs Malaysians refuse to do. Now, they say, the country's export-driven economy will suffer.
Indonesians have been the backbone of Malaysia's construction industry, accounting for up to 70% of the unskilled workers on job sites. Tens of thousands of Indians, Bangladeshis and Pakistanis also work as low-cost labour on rubber and tea plantations.
Large numbers of Filipinos have been attracted to Sabah, the Malaysian sector of the island of Borneo, which lies close to the southern Philippines, to work as domestic help.
The sudden expulsion of so many workers could destabilize Malaysia's neighbours, placing a strain on local governments and families that have relied on the money they sent home.
As tens of thousands of illegal migrants began leaving this week, the Indonesian and Philippine navies directed warships into the area to protect the evacuees.
Yesterday, in a display of their resolution, Malaysian police arrested up to 135 illegal migrants demonstrating outside the Kuala Lumpur offices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Most were from strife-torn areas of Indonesia and Myanmar and were demanding to be given refugee status to escape the crackdown.
Critics of the new immigration law have warned genuine asylum seekers may be caught up in the sweep and could face persecution if sent home.

August 1, 2002

Malaysian laws trigger arrests, exodus

Staff and wires

Officials estimate there are as many as 600,000 illegal workers in Malaysia, which is home to over a million foreign workers
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia -- Malaysia has detained a group of around 100 suspected illegal immigrants on the first day of controversial new laws that give authorities the powers to whip them and put them in prison.
The crackdown came after as many as 300,000 illegal workers crammed ports and other exit points to flee a grace period that ended on Thursday.
Under the new laws announced in May, illegal workers face fines of up to 10,000 ringgit ($2,600), five years imprisonment and six strokes of the cane.
On Thursday, police detained about 100 people who had gathered outside a United Nations office in Kuala Lumpur, according to The Associated Press.
It was not clear if the group would be charged under the new laws, which are at the centerpiece of a crackdown on the labor black market in Malaysia, one of Southeast Asia's richest countries.
The group said they were refugees from Indonesia's Aceh province -- wracked by years of civil war -- and asked to be exempted from the new laws.
Officials estimate there are as many as 600,000 illegal workers in Malaysia, which is home to over a million foreign workers.
Most of them come from the more populous and poorer countries of Indonesia, India, Bangladesh, Thailand, Myanmar and the Philippines.
Indonesia and the Philippines have both expressed concern at the speed of the exodus and say they will have problems absorbing the returning masses of unemployed people.
Many employers want the workers to stay, saying they can't afford higher wages for registered workers, and that they do jobs locals wouldn't touch.
Human rights groups have voiced concerns that genuine asylum seekers may face persecution if they are forced to return home.
In November last year Malaysian authorities deported up to 2,500 Indonesian workers on two Indonesian naval ships under an armed escort.

The Associated Press & Reuters contributed to this report.