[The weekly commentary and analysis of the Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR) on human rights and governance issues]

Embargoed for: 22 February 2006
Review: 113/06
Umma not adequate for migrants in Malaysia

The recovery of dead bodies of five migrant workers from a lake in Selayang area of Malaysia's capital city of Kuala Lumpur from 11 to 13 February 2006 following a raid by the immigration officials belonging to the notorious "RELA," Malaysia's controversial baton-wielding volunteer reserve, once again exposes continuing gross violations of the rights of the migrant workers in Malaysia. Two of the five dead bodies were recovered from the lake - a flooded open cast-mining pit late on 11 February 2006 and the rest three on 12 and 13 February 2006.

Five bodies were dragged from a local lake, Courtesy:

According to eyewitnesses, in the early hours of 11 February 2006, the immigration department conducted a raid. The officers jumped from their trucks and headed for Selayang's large open market where many of the migrants work. Seeing the "Rela" personnel arrive, Hamzan Ali Abdullah, a Burmese Muslim migrant worker, who works in the market, ran away and hid behind the undergrowth near the lake. As he hid he heard screams and cries of migrant workers for "help". He could not see the Rela officers due to the darkness but he had heard them speaking in Malay, "Yes, there were, there were. Come out come out, if you run away we will kill you."

The Malaysian government disputed suggestions that anybody died during the raid or as a result of the raid. It issued a statement rejecting the migrants' account of events stating, "At 2 am on 11 February 2006 Rela carried out an operation to check documents of foreign workers in the open market at Selayang. Nothing serious happened and the operation went smoothly. However, many illegal immigrants were seen running away."

Autopsy on four dead bodies was conducted on 13 February 2006. One of the dead bodies identified to be of Zaw Oo, a Burmese migrant, was not taken to hospital and was buried quickly instead. While the bodies showed no signs of stab or slash wounds, a doctor said the bodies were too badly decomposed to be able to tell whether they had been beaten with batons, such as those carried by Rela volunteers.

The latest death of migrant workers is not an isolated incident of atrocities against migrant workers by the immigration authorities in Malaysia. There have been consistent reports of torture and other abuses against the migrant workers periodically which have been facilitated by country's legal and administrative system. The Immigration Act of Malaysia allows indefinite detention pending deportation. 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. About 75% of the prisoners in Malaysia are foreigners. About 18,000 illegal migrant workers were whipped in 2003.

The intensity of abuses against the undocumented migrant workers and the lack of training, command and accountability of the RELA and other immigration officials have been clearly proven by the case of illegal detention of a Malaysian citizen, 23-year-old Mohd Nazri Harris from Johor at the temporary detention centre for illegal immigrants for about two months since 23 September 2005 by the Immigration Department. Mr. Harris' illegal detention came to the notice of the authorities only after the daily Borneo Post carried his story. He was released on 18 November 2005 only after Suhakam Commissioner Prof Datuk Hamdan Adnan intervened after his meeting with Mr. Nazri Harris on his visit to the centre on 17 November 2005 to investigate a rioting incident a day earlier. Although previously Nazri had produced his birth certificate to show that he is from Kota Tinggi, Johor, immigration officers refused to let him go.

Atrocities against the migrant workers were perpetrated even when the amnesty was operative during November 2004 to February 2005. The "Operation Tegas" which was launched from 1 March 2005 targeted only undocumented migrant workers and not employers or recruiting agents. 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 they 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 undocumented migrants.

Asian Centre for Human Rights has maintained that the crackdown is unlikely to address the problem of illegal migrants in Malaysia unless it addresses the primary concern - the willingness of many Malaysian employers to break the law and employ foreign staff without work permits. In November 2005, Home Affairs Minister Datuk Azmi Khalid stated that only four out of 128 pending cases of employers charged with hiring illegal immigrants had been dealt with since 2003.

Malaysia needs foreign workers and around 11% of its workforce are foreigners. However, Malaysia's policy has been influenced by "Umma" or Islamic brotherhood rather than the rule of law. In February 2005, Minister of Home Affairs Datuk Azmi Khalid announced that Rohingyas would, in addition to having been recognised as refugees, be permitted to work in Malaysia and be given job-related training for that purpose. He also said that the Rohingya children would be provided with education. But over twenty Rohingya refugees were deported to Burma in 2005. Malaysia also allowed 131 Thai Muslims, who fled from Narathiwat province of Southern Thailand in August 2005 to stay in the country but their refugee status was caught in the diplomatic standoff between Bangkok and Kualampur.

So long Malaysia does not develop laws based on the principles of equality and non-discrimination in conformity with international human rights standards for protection of migrant workers, "Umma" is inadequate and the rights of the vulnerable migrant workers will be trampled upon. The recovery of dead bodies of five migrant workers from a lake in Selayang area of Malaysia's capital city of Kuala Lumpur is a clear testimony.

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