KUALA LUMPUR—Malaysia has begun a massive crackdown on illegal foreign workers, deploying more than a quarter of a million vigilantes to hunt down migrant workers without valid visas.
Those who are caught face possible deportation, jail sentences and whipping with a rattan cane.
The campaign comes after a widely publicised four-month amnesty, during which nearly half a million migrants are believed to have fled.
In one pre-dawn raid, some 400 volunteers and officials, armed with guns and truncheons, sealed off a construction site outside Kuala Lumpur. The foreign workers were sleeping in flimsy wooden shanty-houses. The officials hammered on the doors and ordered them out.
“Get up and come out, don’t cause any problems,” one shouted. Blinking the sleep from their eyes, they emerged into a cauldron of TV lights and jostling camera crews.
Many of the women were clutching their babies in their arms. Some tried to run, but they were overpowered before they could make it to the surrounding jungle. One woman hid in knee-deep mud for half an hour until they found her.
One of the women arrested yesterday cried as she told reporters: “I know what I have done is wrong. But I need the money to support my family. I will accept whatever comes. I place my life in the hands of Allah.”
Of the parties of armed men rounding up the workers, only some 20,000 are police, soldiers or immigration officials.
More than 300,000 are volunteers—effectively vigilantes licensed and armed by the Malaysian authorities. They have been offered cash rewards for every illegal worker they find.
Malaysia’s economy has come to depend heavily on cheap foreign labour, with Malaysians refusing to do the worst-paid jobs. But foreign workers are routinely blamed for crime and spreading disease.
Those who left during the amnesty will be allowed back in on new visas under a “revolving door” policy, but those caught in the crackdown and deported will be banned from returning. Malaysia only wants foreign workers who stay for a limited time and then go home.
“I have no money and there is no future for me in Indonesia,” said one worker, Amin, when asked yesterday why he had not left during the amnesty. Around 200 Bangladeshis were detained at Kuala Lumpur airport when they tried to leave yesterday, because the amnesty had expired.
The authorities say they believe as many as half a million illegal workers remain in the country. At least 131 people were arrested yesterday, and the crackdown is expected to continue for some time.
It has been condemned by international human rights groups. The governments of neighbouring Indonesia and the Philippines, where many of the workers come from, have expressed serious concern, and called on Malaysia not to cane illegal workers who are caught.
Amnesty International has called on Malaysia not to repeat the mass expulsions of 2002, when thousands were crowded together in detention centres and deported en masse.