The Malaysian government has begun another crackdown on illegal immigrants, targeting half-a-million people who have fled conflicts in the Southern Philippines, Myanmar and beyond. The move was not unexpected as a roundup is conducted almost annually with mixed results.
The three-month operation will inevitably upset businesses – who have made capitalizing on illegal immigrants as a cheap source of labor an art form – while pandering to the broader majority who feel their country has become overwhelmed by asylum seekers and economic refugees.
Authorities say those targeted have been given a year to register under the Malaysia’s Illegal Immigrant Comprehensive Settlement Programme and the time to act has arrived. Indonesians will make-up the majority while most of the rest will be from the Philippines, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Nepal and Myanmar.
There are more than one million Filipinos living in the East Malaysian state of Sabah and a further 700,000 from Myanmar working across Malaysia. The government insists a significant number remain illegal.
More than 100,000 personnel have been deployed for the operation, including police, immigration officials, civil defense officers, armed forces and local councils. Illegal immigrants will not be held in detention subject to processing, but will be deported immediately.
This has raised concerns among Indonesians who fear their citizens will attempt to escape the dragnet and opt for rickety fishing vessels and an illegal, dangerous trip home. Jakarta is establishing a special team to help co-ordinate the exodus with 452,000 of its citizens living in Sabah alone.
Their government had previously made a special effort to provide paperwork and funds to help illegal Indonesians make the trip from Malaysia to home safely to celebrate Hari Raya after a series of tragedies at sea.
The latest occurred in July when a boat believed to be carrying 44 illegal Indonesian immigrants capsized during a storm with all but four drowning. The four had clung to a plastic drum for 15 hours before being rescued by the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency.
However, a major concern is the plight of Filipinos. Many are stateless and have lived in Sabah for decades amid the conflict in Mindanao. Earlier this year Filipino mercenaries claiming an allegiance to a minor Sultan (of Sulu) crossed the maritime border and launched an insurgency in the state after a dispute involving money with the Malaysian government.
More than 70 people died as result and the Sultan and his followers have claimed the insurgency could continue, fueled largely by disgruntled and illegal Filipinos who have made Sabah their home. Manila does not recognize Malaysian sovereignty over the state and claims it for itself.
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter at @lukeanthonyhunt.