Every year on 18 December, the Malaysian Bar commemorates International Migrants Day to reflect on the contributions of migrants from around the world.
Migrants serve as powerful drivers of the economy in destination countries, including Malaysia, as workers and students, bringing a wealth of knowledge, experience and skills.
The theme this year – “Promoting safe migration” – calls for states to affirm their commitment to upholding human rights for all migrants, regardless of their legal status. The aim is to combat xenophobia and endorse laws condemning the exploitation of migrant workers as a vulnerable community.
As of 2022, the Department of Statistics of Malaysia recorded about 2.2 million documented migrant workers in Malaysia. The unofficial number of undocumented migrants is reported to be in the range of 1.2 to 3.5 million, making Malaysia one of the largest migrant-receiving countries in Southeast Asia.
Challenges faced by migrants, especially those who are undocumented and in the low-skilled and semi-skilled jobs, peaked during the Covid pandemic and lockdowns. Even after the pandemic, they continue to face exploitation and difficulty in accessing basic amenities, including restrictions on movement, passport retention, difficulties in accessing affordable healthcare services, non-payment for work and mistreatment in the workplace.
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The Malaysian Bar notes the recent efforts taken by the government, in particular:
- Reshuffling the cabinet, resulting in the appointment of a new human resources minister and deputy minister; and
- Declassifying a 2019 report by the independent committee on the management of foreign workers.
On this International Migrants Day, the Malaysian Bar calls on the government to adopt and immediately implement the recommendations from the 2019 report of the independent committee on the management of foreign workers that was issued by the Ministry of Human Resources, namely to:
- revamp the current foreign workers management system and implement a coherent set of policies within a strategic framework
- establish a single authority responsible for formulating and implementing such policies relating to migrants, including documented and undocumented foreign workers, expatriates, foreign spouses and students
- introduce and regulate a central programme for undocumented foreign workers to be managed by the Ministry of Human Resources and the Ministry of Home Affairs
- enact legislation to impose or otherwise increase penalties on employers who knowingly employ undocumented foreign workers; and
- establish a proper system to regulate the status and rights of stateless persons, refugees and asylum seekers
We all have a responsibility to protect and ensure that migrants are treated with dignity and afforded basic rights when in Malaysia.
It is time to recognise the contributions of migrants to the Malaysian economy and effectively address the many challenges they face.
Karen Cheah Yee Lynn is president of the Malaysian Bar
This piece is reproduced from here and has been edited for style only.