Home 2012: 3 Government’s deception of undocumented migrants and refugees

Government’s deception of undocumented migrants and refugees

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To promise an amnesty and then to back-track and break those promises does not forge greater trust in the authorities, remarks Angeline Loh.

Immigration detainees at the Lenggeng Detention Centre, Malaysia, 23 July 2009 – Photo courtesy of Amnesty France Flickr

The recent announcement by the Federal authorities that the deadline for registration of undocumented migrant workers was extended to 10 April 2012 seems to be a misrepresentation, misleading employers, undocumented migrant workers, asylum seekers and refugees.

Crackdowns had already started even before the last deadline on 15 February prior to this extension and are still continuing long before the new deadline.

Neither the Minister of Home Affairs nor the immigration authorities have made public any reasons for launching these crackdowns on undocumented migrants, asylum seekers and confirmed refugees during this amnesty period.

Migrants and human rights NGOs – Tenaganita and Suaram – have reported arrests and possible deportation of about 323 supposedly undocumented migrants from 11 February to 5 March. This number, however, includes persons with official UNHCR refugee status as well as asylum seekers protected by international law.

The use of deception as a ruse to corner and deport undocumented migrants, refugees and asylum seekers flies in the face of customary international human rights and refugee law. It indicates the extent to which the government of this country may be trusted by the international community as well as its own citizens.

To promise an amnesty for undocumented migrant workers, negotiate humanitarian agreements with the UN refugee agency and other interested parties, yet to subsequently back-track and break these promises, does not forge greater trust in the Malaysian government. The government looks set to continue its ‘war on migrants’ that has intensified since 2004.

6P Registration – Going nowhere

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A registration exercise to collect biometric data was carried out in August 2011 on refugees in the Klang Valley, at Putrajaya. Since then, nothing more has been heard about this programme or if the data collected has been used to identify refugees, amongst other measures that may assist in setting up a more comprehensive and updated immigration system to deal with current migration issues.

Moreover, the 6P registration of undocumented migrant workers appears to be going nowhere. According to media reports since last year, employers trying to get their foreign workers registered have faced long delays and queues merely to obtain queue numbers. Foreign workers had to be brought by their employers to Putrajaya from all corners of the country and had to wait days just to be registered.

There were also complaints about the slow pace at which immigration department staff worked and the breakdown of equipment used for electronic data collection. In some cases, foreign workers and employers were kept waiting at the immigration office for a whole day, only to be asked to return to the immigration office the next day to start the same process all over again.

Keeping workers and employers in limbo only causes work stoppages incurring daily losses, slow and reduced production of goods and services, or complete shutdowns that could end in the bankruptcy of many SMEs. Moreover, the current crackdowns on undocumented migrant workers without fair warning to either workers or employers and the non-compliance with government-set deadlines for an amnesty will disrupt operations to the disadvantage of both workers and the employers on whom they depend. This also creates an artificial labour shortage without any back-up labour force or compensation for arbitrary redundancy or loss of investment.

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Immigration crackdowns detrimental to economy

Further, employers of undocumented migrant workers not yet registered face a maximum fine of RM50,000 and a twelve month jail term for each undocumented employee (Section 55B Immigration Act 1959/63). Attacking foreign employees and their employers would only bring about a lose-lose economic situation for smaller businesses in Malaysia, which contribute substantially to local investment in goods and services.

The other short-sighted measure instituted by the authorities is the prohibition on employing refugees present in the country. UNHCR-confirmed refugees number nearly 100,000. A number of refugees are reasonably able-bodied and of employable age. There are also refugees who were holding skilled jobs or were trained in skilled work before leaving their countries as refugees. Further, in comparison to the estimated number of undocumented foreign workers (2.6 m according to Tenaganita) in the country, 100,000 refugees is far smaller in number.

There is no reason why refugees with skills should be kept outside the labour force and prohibited from contributing to the economy of the country where they are seeking some security – even if it may be temporary. In view of the short-term contracts given to other foreign workers, working temporarily in the country should not pose a problem for an employer as the employer can quite easily employ a replacement worker. Better still, if the employer uses the trained refugee-worker to train other workers to replace them before they leave the country to be resettled or voluntarily return to their own countries.

There are many constructive solutions to the labour shortage in Malaysia and to the apparently overwhelming immigration problems Malaysia faces. But the biggest problem faced by the rakyat now is the dismal lack of political will to initiate and institute these constructive solutions for a better Malaysia. Those taking the initiative privately to use the labour and skills available regardless of legal status are deemed to be breaking the law under the Immigration Act. This dilemma leaves a pool of ready labour being un-utilised and apparently ‘punished’ for being victims of unjust persecution in their home countries – while leaving employers and local businesses uncertain of their future survival.

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This entrapment ruse by the Ministry of Home Affairs and the immigration authorities is purposeless, unjustified and is of no benefit to the economy, the foreign migrants, refugees or the country. Politicising immigration and migrants can only be interpreted as emotionalising an apparently sensitive issue to gain political mileage by diverting public attention to unresolved migration problems ahead of Malaysia’s coming general election.

The adhoc and secretive actions of the federal authorities relating to undocumented migrants, asylum seekers and refugees in Malaysia prompt us to ask why, since the 1970s, when refugees first arrived in Malaysia, the government has refrained from developing a better immigration system to cope with new migration trends and problems in the region. The government has also neglected to continuously monitor the effects of its sweeping foreign labour and migration policies, leaving problems to fester until they become unmanageable. Instead, it has used ever increasing numbers of security enforcers like Rela while condoning flagrant human rights abuses as its sole solution.

Angeline Loh is an Aliran executive committee member

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