Under “Operation Tegas”, Malaysian
police officers, immigration
officials and reserve volunteers have been raiding building
sites, plantations and restaurants - all popular work places
for illegal migrants. The Malayisan government has reportedly
deployed 25,000 frontline personnel in addition to 290,000
officers from the auxiliary police volunteer unit (RELA).
They have the power to enter private property such as homes
and stop and search members of the public without a warrant.
They are also empowered to use fire-arms.
Migrant workers and their exploitation:
Estimates vary, but it is generally reckoned that
there are between two and a half to three million migrant
workers in Malaysia. Only one and a half million of them are
legal. About 400,000
to 600,000 foreigners have already left following the announcement
of three month amnesty from 29 October 2004. The three-month amnesty which was scheduled to end in
December 2004 but was delayed until 31 January 2005 as a result
of the Asian tsunami.
But an estimated 200,000 to 400,000 undocumented workers remain.
The foreign workers are engaged
in what Shamsuddin Bardin Malaysian Employers Federation Director
termed as “three D jobs that Malaysians don't want - dirty,
dangerous and difficult.” The exploitation and abuse of the
migrant workers both by the employers and the immigrant officials
On 28 February 2005, Indonesia’s Labour and Transmigration
Minister Fahmi Idris stated that about 100,000 Indonesian
illegal migrant workers who have not been paid wages are refusing
to return home even in the face of an imminent crackdown.
Most of those affected are domestic helpers while the rest
are working in plantations, construction sites and factories.
In early February 2005, the Indonesian embassy in Kuala Lumpur
reportedly hired five lawyers to sue the employers who have
been taking advantage of the amnesty to withhold the workers’
wages. However, the action was withdrawn later after
a meeting between Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono
and Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.
The crackdown is unlikely
to address the problem of illegal migrants in Malaysia. The
country needs foreign workers who contributed to the development
of Malaysia as a successful economy. Around 11% of the workforce of Malaysia are foreigners.
rightly stated by a coalition of Joint
NGO Committee of Malaysia, the crackdown only targets
undocumented migrant workers and not employers or recruiting
agents. Therefore, it does not address the primary concern
- the willingness of many Malaysian employers to break the
law and take on foreign staff without work permits. The unwilingness
of the Malaysian government to take action against those who
employ without work permits facilitates exploitation and abuse
at work places, non-payment of wages as highlighted by Indonesia’s
Labour and Transmigration Minister Fahmi Idris and insufficient
wages for survival. Many undocumented migrants are held as
bonded labourers or sex slaves.
Malaysia has failed to take measures to reduce the
number of undocumented migrant workers. Many employers, especially
the contractors in the construction industry, in the small
and medium industries and employers of domestic workers do
not renew the work permits and thus the labourers become undocumented.
If workers, especially domestic workers decide to run away
to escape from abuse and violence have their work permits
cancelled and thus become undocumented. The Immigration Department
refuses to issue legal documents to migrants with pending
court cases. The workers are only issued special passes for
a maximum of three months, though it takes at least six months
to settle a case through the court process. During the period
of hearing, they are not allowed to have new work permit and
remain under threat of arrest and imprisonment. They too become
As stated in our previous ACHR REVIEW, “undocumented
persons in Malaysia irrespective of whether they are alleged
illegal migrant workers or asylum seekers can face up
to a five-year jail sentence, a RM10,000 (US$2,600) fine and
six strokes of the cane under the Immigration Act, which was amended in 2002”.
The Immigration Act also allows indefinite detention pending deportation.
75% of the prisoners in Malaysia are foreigners. About 18,000
illegal migrant workers were whipped in 2003 and about 60,000
lashes given to the migrant workers. Another 16,000 undocumented
workers are waiting to be whipped.
The “Operation Tegas” also fails
to take into consideration the requirements of the vulnerable
groups such as refugees, asylum seekers and victims of trafficking.
On 1 February 2005, sixty-two
Indonesians, including 27 from Aceh, were rounded up in a
pre-dawn raid on a construction site south of Kuala Lumpur
and were being held in Semenyih detention center. Many of
the Acehnese were prevented from approaching the Office of
the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees as Malaysian
police arrest them as illegal migrants. The government failed
to live up to its promise of granting legal status to the
Rohingya refugees from Myanmar. Such mass deportation also
facilitates trafficking and violence including rape of the
The measures adopted by Malaysia against its officials
are also draconian. Malaysian police have arrested a number
of government officials on suspicion of selling residency
permits to criminals involved in trafficking. The civil servants
are being held under terrorism laws that allow indefinite
detention without trial or charge. The use of anti-terror
laws once again shows the lack of rule of law and due process
According to news reports, out of seventeen employers
who have been arrested for hiring undocumented workers, only
two employers have been fined.
It appears that Malaysian
government seeks to punish those who are vulnerable to trafficking
and thus end up being undocumented/illegal because of extreme
poverty and persecution at home. Ultimately, unless the Malaysian
companies/agents who are engaged are equally punished for
employing alleged illegal workers, the exodus of illegal migrants
and their exploitation are unlikely to end.
The response of the Malaysian
government appears to address the concerns of the Bhumiputras,
the majority Malays who have been given economic privileges
under New Economic Policy to help them win a more proportionate
share of the economy. As the Bhumiputras failed, the
migrant workers are the new scapegoats. Now the RELA of the
Bhumiputras has been given the power to use fire-arms
without any training on the use of fire-arms while hunting
the alleged undocumented migrants. But the rule of law and
due process of law have always been alien to Malaysia under
former Prime Minister Mahatir and it has changed little under
the regime of Prime Minister Badawi. If the experience of
mass deportation of March 2002 is any indication, flagrant
human rights abuses are likely to be widely committed.
International community especially the Office of the
High Commissioner for Human Rights, United Nations High Commissioner
for Refugees and the concerned governments such as Indonesia,
Philippines, Bangladesh, India etc must ensure that deportation
is undertaken in a humane way with full respect for human
rights and fundamental freedoms and that Malaysia provides
consular access in accordance with the Vienna Convention on
Consular Relations pertaining to those who are taken into