Malaysia Detains Hundreds of Undocumented Migrants as Amnesty Program Ends

Nisha David
Kuala Lumpur
2020-01-02
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200102-MY-final1000.jpg Undocumented migrants occupy a hallway of the Malaysian immigration headquarters in the administrative capital Putrajaya as they await their turn to register for the government’s Back for Good program, Dec. 23, 2019.
S. Mahfuz/BenarNews

Malaysia arrested hundreds of undocumented migrants in the past two days, officials said Thursday, as Kuala Lumpur launched a promised yearlong immigration crackdown after wrapping up an amnesty program where 190,000 foreigners agreed to leave the country.

Law-enforcement agents detained 474 foreigners, including 220 Indonesians, in a sweep targeting undocumented migrant workers after the five-month program that allowed them to turn themselves in ended on Dec. 31, immigration chief Khairul Dzaimee Daud told reporters in Kuala Lumpur.

“A total of 1,871 were checked, and out of that total, 474 foreigners were arrested for various immigration offenses,” Khairul said.

The Muslim-majority nation of 33 million people relies on laborers and domestic helpers from Southeast and South Asian countries, such as Indonesia, Myanmar, and Bangladesh, for construction jobs and work on palm oil plantations.

Among the foreigners who were picked up were 78 Bangladeshis, 42 from Myanmar and 22 Filipinos, the immigration chief said.

“In addition to that, four employers were also detained,” he said, without elaborating.

In July last year, the Malaysian government announced its Back for Good (B4G) program, which allowed illegal workers to register and be repatriated voluntarily without facing legal action.

After obtaining identification documents from their embassies and showing plane tickets to their home countries, applicants were also required to pay a fee of 700 ringgit (U.S. $171) as a penalty for overstaying in the country, officials said.

Since last month, huge crowds of immigrant workers, including many from Cambodia, Nepal and India, had joined lines that snaked around the immigration building in Putrajaya, the Malaysian administrative capital.

Khairul said immigration agents were aiming to arrest about 70,000 undocumented migrants who failed to take advantage of the government’s amnesty program. Those who are detained could face a minimum fine of 5,000 ringgit (U.S. $1,198) and could be sentenced up to 12 months in prison, if convicted.

He said 195,471 had registered under the B4G program and 165,000 had been deported.

“However, the program was not entirely taken up and some employers were still adamant,” Khairul said. “Indonesians, Bangladeshis and Myanmar nationals were among the highest number of illegal immigrants who registered under the program, comprising mostly of workers.”

Millions of foreigners work without permits in Malaysia, which counted more than two million migrant workers as of August last year, officials said.

The government collected about 400 million ringgit (almost U.S. $96 million) in fines when about 840,000 people came forward and left Malaysia under another amnesty program that ended in August 2018. That program, known as 3+1, was launched in 2014.

Last July, the U.N.’s Office on Drugs and Crime said in a report that the disparity between developed and least developed countries had created a demand for cheap labor in Southeast Asia, driving the growth in human trafficking and smuggling of migrants looking for work.

The U.S. State Department’s 2019 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) placed Malaysia under the Tier 2 Watch List, saying it “did not demonstrate overall increasing efforts compared to the previous year” in the fight against trafficking. Tier 2 Watch List is one step above the lowest ranking.

Adrian Pereira, director of the North-South Initiative, which monitors human rights and assists migrant workers, told BenarNews that thousands of foreign workers missed the deadline to register for the amnesty because many employers were not cooperating.

“It cannot be denied that the government has given them enough time, but not all these foreign workers were released by their employers,” Pereira said. “Some [employers] just let them [the foreign workers] sign up at the last minute.”

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