Malaysia's Immigration Act (Amendment) of 1996 went into effect on January 1, 1997, but enforcement was delayed until February 1, 1997. The amendments provide for mandatory imprisonment for employers guilty of employing more than five illegal workers. Persons found to be harboring illegal immigrants will have to pay for their detention and deportation.
On January 16, the Malaysian government told the country's illegal immigrants and their employers that they have until January 31, 1997 to voluntarily register, leave, or face harsh new penalties, including caning, fines and prison sentences. Malaysia charges illegal aliens who register to leave M$1000 ($400), plus requires them to provide finger prints and pay their way home.
The crackdown on illegal alien workers includes deploying 2,000 police and 1,000 soldiers to go door-to-door inspecting work places and homes for illegal aliens--13 maids were detained in late January. The immigration raids were concentrated in the states of Sabah, Johor, Pahang and Selangor. About 40 workers were apprehended each day in late January.
By one estimate, there are 500,000 illegal Indonesians, 200,000 illegal Bangladeshis, 100,000 illegal Indians and 50,000 illegal Chinese in Malaysia.
In 1996, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said that "Malaysia can no longer be over-dependent on foreign labor as social problems created by them are already taking a toll. Once they have stayed here for a length of time, they will want more...including the right to become citizens."
Malaysia is attempting to reduce its economy's dependence on unskilled foreign workers. The government froze new foreign worker recruitment in July 1996, and offered employers a chance to register and regularize their illegal workers from July through December 1996. Employers registered 423,180 illegal workers and paid M$400 million in levies during the six month amnesty.
However, in January, 1997, another 400,000 illegal foreigners registered, bringing the total number of registered workers registered to 960,164 in Peninsular Malaysia.
In 1992, 300,000 illegal foreigners were registered.
The government says that there will be no more legalizations, and that labor-intensive industries unable to find local workers should move to Indonesia or Vietnam.
Some 2,000 of the 11,000 Indonesian workers detained in camps were sent home on an Indonesian navy ship; the other 9,000 were hired by employers and had their status regularized. Conditions in the detention camps were in the spotlight in January 1997, as the commander of the Semenyih detention camp admitted that seven foreigners died while he was in charge. At the camp, foreigners are reportedly not given bedding or toiletries.
Some illegal workers have bought false work permits, reportedly paying M$3,000 to M$5,000; Malaysian authorities detained 69 foreigners attempting to leave Malaysia with false documents in January 1997. Illegal aliens who return to Malaysia after being sent home are subject to fines of M$10,000, five years in jail, and six strokes of the rotan.
The Foreign Workers Task Force, which handles employer applications for foreign workers, has become part of the Immigration Department.
Bangladeshis complain that they are the major targets of the crackdown. The government says that there are 117,500 legal Bangladeshi workers in Malaysia and 200,000 to 300,000 illegal Bangladeshis. Labor smugglers reportedly smuggle Bangladeshis through southern Thailand to Malaysia for $500 each, sometimes using passports bought from corrupt immigration department staff.
The Malaysian Indian Congress distributed pamphlets in rural communities warning Malaysian Indian girls about the dangers of marrying Bangladeshis. The Tamil language pamphlet, entitled "Temporary Relationship, Permanent Problem," warns that "they look like us and speak very nicely to our girls," but that marriage to Bangladeshi workers helps to create a "fatherless society," as the Bangladeshis must leave Malaysia after their work permits expire and they do not take their Malaysian wives home because many already have families.
Many of the Malaysian girls who marry Bangladeshis are Hindus. Under Malaysian law, a marriage is not recognized unless a non-Muslim woman marrying a Muslim also converts to Islam. About 10 percent of Malaysia's 20 million residents are of Indian descent.
In 1996, the Malaysia government announced that Malaysian women properly married to foreign men may apply to have their husbands granted permanent residency in Malaysia.
A late December 1996 storm killed 214 people and destroyed housing in Sabah. The government announced in January that only Malays would be allowed to seek temporary housing assistance from the Malaysian government.
The Federation of Indonesian Trade Unions in January called on the government to reduce the number of foreign workers in the country from current levels of about 70,000. Most are professionals or expatriates.
"Malaysia detains 211 illegal workers in blitz," Reuters, February 2, 1997. "Desperate illegals try to forge their way out," Straits Times, January 14, 1997. Hari S. Maniam, "Malaysia's Illegal aliens face penalties," The Record, January 19, 1997. "Embassy tells Indon illegals to go home before deadline," New Straits Times, January 18, 1997. Leslie Andres, "Amnesty for aliens who want out before Feb. 1," New Straits Times, January 17, 1997. Teena Amrit Gill, "Illegal foreign workers bitter over crackdown," Inter Press Service, January 13, 1997.