MALAYSIA: Malaysia should be more humane on migrants and the crackdown must be stopped

February 1, 2005

A statement by the Asian Human Rights Commission

Malaysia should be more humane on migrants and the crackdown must stopped

The Government of Malaysia has announced that it will crackdown on approximately 800,000 undocumented migrant workers and asylum seekers currently based in the country.  The crackdown was to begin on 1 February 2005 following the government’s announcement that it would deploy about 500,000 law enforcement officials (police and immigration) and “civilian volunteers” to hunt down migrants and asylum seekers, who originate from Indonesia, the Philippines, Myanmar, Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka.

However, the crackdown on migrants, in particular, will not solve the problem of illegal migration.  A joint Malaysian NGO statement, issued on 29 January 2005, argued that issues such as exploitation and abuse by employers and employment agencies, together with conditions of work and insufficient wages, have also been key-contributing factors to documented workers leaving their employment and becoming undocumented. The legal process to obtain redress has been a lengthy one and the immigration authorities in Malaysia have refused to provide legal permission to stay for those who pursue such cases.  All this has contributed to many documented migrant workers becoming undocumented.  Corruption and collusion between trafficking agents and law enforcement officers are commonly known and migrants become victims of such practices. Thus, this crackdown would not address the root problems facing migrant workers in Malaysia today.

The crackdown is unfairly inconsiderate to the workers and asylum seekers who have gone to Malaysia due to the enormous difficulties they face in their own countries. To now round them up and force them back to their own country’s demonstrates a lack of compassion and care on the part of the Government of Malaysia, and may, in the case of asylum seekers, be illegal. Migrant workers and asylum seekers have contributed significantly to the Malaysian economy, yet they receive this treatment regardless.  The Government of Malaysia’s decision to return them now compounds the hardship, abuse and lack of legal protection they have endured. 

The use of civilian groups, especially after arming them with firearms, to crackdown on migrant workers and asylum seekers is unprecedented in recent history.  From a legal point of view this amounts to giving powers of arrest, use of force and detention to civilians. Due to their civilian status, these groups may enjoy anonymity and impunity.  These civilian groups are not trained to carry out such operations.  In fact trained law enforcement officials too need to exercise extra precautions when carrying out such tasks to guarantee that force is not used and the rights of the people are not violated.  Trained law enforcement officials wear their identification numbers and they are attached to units in the respective department. In case of unnecessary and excessive use of force tracing them back would be easier.  However, this is not the case when civilians are used to carry out such tasks. 

It must be remembered that many Asian countries are trying to overcome great human and infrastructural losses incurred in the aftermath of the recent tsunami. Governments from those countries face the arduous task of trying to rebuild their nations. In such circumstances, having to deal with the forcible repatriation of hundreds of thousands of migrant workers would not in any way help countries to recover.  Malaysia, as a neighbour to many of these countries and with a developed and stable economy, has a moral obligation to assist in this critical time.

It is welcomed news that the Government of Malaysia has temporarily halted the crackdown.  The Asian Human Rights Commission, however, calls for a permanent halt to the crackdown and urges the Government of Malaysia to address the deeper issues affecting migrant workers and asylum seekers. Malaysia could discuss the modalities of dealing with the issue of migrant workers with other governments, especially the possibility of documenting them.  Such modalities should always incorporate the protection of human rights of those migrants affected.  The Asian Human Rights Commission urges the United Nations and the Commonwealth Secretariat to mediate and facilitate such discussions.  We further urge the Government of Malaysia to respect the work of UNHCR in its attempts to provide protection to refugees.  We especially urge the Government of Malaysia to provide protection to refugees under the protection of UNHCR and respect the international customary law principle of non-refoulement. 

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AS-08-2005
Countries : Malaysia,
Issues : Migrant workers,