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.
|Officials estimate there are as many as 600,000 illegal workers in Malaysia, which is home to over a million foreign workers|
The Associated Press & Reuters contributed to this report.