1,000 nabbed as KL begins crackdown on illegal migrants

Malaysia launches nationwide raid, plans to deport 400,000 in largest clampdown to date

(Dow Jones) – The Malaysian authorities arrested about 1,000 migrant workers yesterday as the country launched a large-scale immigration operation to flush out and swiftly deport nearly half a million illegal foreign workers, its largest crackdown to date on low-wage migrant labour at plantations and factories.

The move signals the government’s resolve to separate the legal from the undocumented immigrant workforce in an effort to cut surplus labour and trim a huge social cost arising from hosting a large population of foreigners, who make up more than 16 per cent of the total workforce in the nation of 29 million people.

“In the first phase of this operation that will continue until this year-end, we plan to arrest and deport about 400,000 illegal immigrants and arrest about 45,000 employers of such workers,” said Mr Saravana Kumar, Deputy Director at Malaysia’s Immigration Department.

About 1,000 migrant workers were arrested across the country yesterday, said Mr Saravana, adding that employers who hire illegal immigrants can be fined up to RM50,000 (S$19,400) or face jail time of up to five years or six strokes of the cane, or all three.

Malaysia has telegraphed the raids for more than a week and it is unclear how many migrants may have fled before they began. The country is a magnet for migrants from neighbouring Indonesia, the Philippines, Myanmar and South Asian nations such as Nepal and Bangladesh.

The latest drive is targeting those who had registered under an amnesty programme for illegal immigrants launched two years ago but never showed up for further processing, which could have included legalisation or voluntary deportation. About 1.3 million of an estimated two million illegal foreign workers had registered. Of them, about 500,000 were legalised and 330,000 were repatriated.

Hosting a huge foreign workforce strains public services such as security, health, transportation and education. Malaysia has been tightening employment rules for unskilled foreign workers. Migrant workers totalled nearly 1.6 million in 2011, down 23 per cent from two million in 2007, Ministry of Human Resources data shows.

“The economy is softening, growth is moderating, and this makes it an ideal time to shed the excess illegal foreign workers,” said Dr Shankaran Nambiar, Senior Research Fellow at the Malaysian Institute of Economic Research.

A team of 150 officers from the Immigration Department, led by deputy director Saravana Kumar, yesterday went on pre-dawn raids around the administrative capital Putrajaya and detained 71 foreigners without valid documents.

Raids nationwide would include squats, farms, entertainment and massage parlours, he said.

In one swoop on a rickety settlement on the fringes of a palm plantation, the arrival of a convoy triggered a chaotic rush among residents, some of whom tried to escape to a neighbouring forest. Most were soon caught. Groups huddled meekly in handcuffs as their identities were checked.

“I have never experienced such a thing in the past six years that I have been working in Malaysia,” said Mr Manik Sheikh, a Bangladeshi, who waited patiently. He was later released.

The often-illiterate workers can find themselves caught between potentially unscrupulous employment agencies and the risk of being apprehended by immigration authorities. This leaves them vulnerable to wage theft and mistreatment.