A rights activist has cautioned against launching a crackdown on undocumented migrants during the pandemic, amid repeated threats by the home minister and the immigration chief of a massive operation targeting the group.
Adrian Pereira said any crackdown would only aggravate the Covid-19 crisis and endanger the lives of many.
“This is a state of emergency with a specific purpose of solving the pandemic,” he told MalaysiaNow.
“Now is not the time for such enforcement which will cause the Covid-19 situation to further escalate.”
Home Minister Hamzah Zainudin today again insisted that undocumented migrants should be detained, this time adding that it was to make it easier for authorities to administer the vaccines.
Putrajaya had earlier said that it would also extend its free vaccine programme to all foreigners as well as undocumented workers, in a bid to accelerate the goal of achieving herd immunity.
That gesture differs markedly from remarks by immigration director-general Khairul Dzaimee Daud.
Khairul recently raised eyebrows when he vowed to go after illegal immigrants whom he claimed worked in the country without paying taxes while “reap[ing] all the benefits”.
There have been concerns that such a stance would only undermine the government’s vaccination programme, the success of which would depend greatly on its outreach to millions of undocumented workers.
But Pereira, who is executive director of NGO North South Initiative, spoke of an amnesty in light of the ongoing recalibration programme for undocumented migrants, saying enforcement operations during this time would contradict Putrajaya’s promise that undocumented migrants would be rehired under its Labour Recalibration Programme.
Under the programme, employers are allowed to rehire foreign workers in four sectors: the restaurant sector, cargo, wholesale and retail, and cleaning and laundering.
Home Minister Hamzah Zainudin and Human Resources Minister M Saravanan, who announced the programme in April, said the government had agreed to include undocumented workers from several categories in the plan, namely those who have registered for the rehiring programme but have not completed the registration process and have yet to receive a temporary pass, those who have fled but have not been reported by their employers, and those with valid travel documents from their country of origin.
Questioning the move to crack down on undocumented migrants during an amnesty, Pereira said it “doesn’t make sense”.
He also said that any move to arrest undocumented migrants during a public health crisis would have a negative impact on the economy.
Meanwhile, an Indonesian community leader who works closely with undocumented migrants in the country questioned Khairul’s claim that they “reap all the benefits” without paying taxes.
“Isn’t paying all that (taxes) the employer’s obligation?” he said.
Speaking to MalaysiaNow on condition of anonymity, he said migrants are currently too afraid to be screened for Covid-19, let alone register for vaccination.
This is despite repeated assurances by Khairy Jamaluddin, the minister in charge of the National Covid-19 Immunisation Programme, that undocumented migrants who come forward for the jab will not be arrested.
“In a situation like this, friends are afraid to do a Covid test or register for vaccination, but this virus will spread to everyone because Covid does not choose citizens,” he said.
“Even though we have convinced friends to register for vaccination through the application provided by the government, they feel scared because of the home ministry’s statement.”
He voiced hope that the recalibration programme would remain in place so that more migrant workers could come forward and “settle the problem”.
Pereira meanwhile urged the government to reconsider its identification of undocumented workers as “pendatang asing tanpa izin” or Pati.
“Some of them are victims of modern-day slavery who should not be punished.
“We believe more than 90% of undocumented migrants are victims of forced labour and human trafficking. So the term Pati is actually very misleading.”