Southeast Asian lawmakers Wednesday called on Malaysia to treat undocumented workers fairly and respect their human rights as Kuala Lumpur carried on with an immigration crackdown that has rounded up more than 3,300 foreigners this month, according to government figures.
As of 10 p.m. Wednesday (local time), immigration agents had detained 3,323 workers without proper papers during the first 12 days of the crackdown that began on July 1, Malaysia’s Immigration Department said.
The detainees are mostly from other countries in Southeast and South Asia. They include 1,230 Bangladeshis, 825 Indonesians, 273 Myanmar nationals, 119 Vietnamese, 123 Thais and 95 Filipinos, and the rest are from other countries, officials with the department said.
Malaysia launched the crackdown a day after the government’s deadline for workers to register with the immigration authorities expired.
The ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) issued a statement expressing concern about the round-up taking place in Malaysia.
“A desire to decrease the number of undocumented workers in the country can never be an excuse to further victimize the vulnerable,” Mu Sochua, an APHR board member and member of the Cambodian National Assembly, said in the statement.
The group describes itself as a collective of regional lawmakers made up of current, former and retired parliamentarians from across the 10-nation ASEAN bloc.
“While Malaysia has a legitimate need to address the fact that so many migrants find themselves without proper paperwork, it must ensure that basic human rights are respected for all people at all times,” Mu Sochua said.
As thousands of new detainees are sent to be locked up in Malaysia’s overcrowded immigration detention centers, the crackdown risks worsening conditions in those facilities that are already dire, APHR said.
“The Malaysian government must provide answers as to how they are addressing this sudden influx of thousands of detainees and how they will ensure that conditions do not deteriorate further,” Mu Sochua said.
According to the regional parliamentarians, the government had registered only 161,000 undocumented migrants through its Foreign Worker Temporary E-Card Program. It is an initiative to give an opportunity to all employers, who have hired foreign workers without work permits, to register their employees in an effort to address labor shortages in certain economic sectors.
The deadline for registering all undocumented workers under the program expired on June 30, prompting the crackdown.
Apart from the more than 3,300 detained foreigners, 63 employers allegedly involved in hiring undocumented workers had also been arrested, Mustafar Ali, the director-general of the immigration department, told reporters on Wednesday night.
“Employers should be subjected to the maximum penalty if found guilty of keeping illegal immigrants,” Ali said, adding that violators “could face fines, jail time and whipping.”
He did not elaborate.
More than 30,000 undocumented workers have been sent back to their home countries since the beginning of this year, Ali said.
Ali debunked concerns about possible overcrowding in the immigration department’s 13 jail centers, saying that most detainees had been deported before the government imposed a June 30 deadline for employers to register their workers under the E-Card program. He said the deadline would not be extended.
2 million workers without papers
There are two million legally registered migrant workers and at least two million others who are undocumented in Malaysia, which has a population of about 32 million, according to non-governmental organizations.
Most of the undocumented immigrants work in construction, palm oil plantations, factories and cleaning services, doing physically taxing menial jobs, which locals shy away from and describe as “3D” – dangerous, difficult and dirty.
Malaysia, a federation of 13 states and three federal territories, experienced a surge in the number of low-income workers mainly from Vietnam, Indonesia, Nepal, Myanmar and Bangladesh after its economy posted robust growth in the past few years.
In April, the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights also voiced concerns following local newspaper reports that more than 100 people, mostly from Myanmar, had died in the past two years in Malaysian immigration detention centers.
Although the Malaysian government pledged an investigation into the allegations, little has been done to address the alarmingly poor conditions in the centers since, APHR said.
Malaysia’s home ministry said it was trying to improve the conditions but its budget was constrained, according to the South China Morning Post.
“It is important for embassies of countries sending large numbers of workers to Malaysia to demand full access to their detained nationals, as well as accurate figures of the number of their citizens currently being detained,” Mu Sochua said.
“Foreign embassies have a responsibility to represent their citizens and to demand answers from the Malaysian government. At the same time, Malaysian authorities should be transparent.”
People, ‘not commodities’
APHR reiterated the need for regional solutions to address the widespread abuse of migrant workers throughout Southeast Asia.
While abuses are particularly egregious in Malaysia, migrant workers tend to be treated exceedingly poorly throughout the region, according to APHR Board Member Eva Kusuma Sundari, a member of the Indonesian House of Representatives.
“The lack of coordinated action among (Southeast Asian) governments to protect human rights in the context of migration is contributing to this problem and giving free reign to employers, recruitment agents and authorities to abuse migrant workers,” Sundari said.
“Governments must remember that migrant workers, whether documented or undocumented, are not commodities, but people who have made enormous contributions to the region’s progress,” she said.