Malaysia begs expelled immigrant workers to return

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The Independent Online

Malaysia has been forced to beg illegal immigrants it chased out only months ago to return to solve severe labour shortages in a salutary warning to Europe's vocal anti-immigration lobby.

Malaysia has been forced to beg illegal immigrants it chased out only months ago to return to solve severe labour shortages in a salutary warning to Europe's vocal anti-immigration lobby.

In a humiliating U-turn, the government said yesterday that it would allow illegal workers it forced to flee with threats of imprisonment and caning to return on tourist visas and search for work.

Malaysia expelled 380,000 foreign labourers, most of them from impoverished Indonesia, under an amnesty between October 2004 and February this year. Those who did not leave before the deadline expired were hunted by 300,000 vigilantes recruited and armed by the government and forcibly expelled.

Although it came in for heavy international criticism, the Malaysian government made great play of the expulsions at home, saying it was protecting Malaysian jobs and cracking down on illegal immigrants who were popularly blamed for rising crime.

But just a few months after ordering the illegal immigrants out, Malaysia finds itself facing drastic labour shortages that have forced the government to rethink its policy. Plantations, construction sites and factories have ground to a halt. The restaurant business has been hit badly too. Illegal migrant workers made up more than 10 per cent of Malaysia's workforce. It turns out the Malaysian economy was relying on the immigrants to do menial jobs most Malaysians will not.

At the time of the amnesty, Malaysia was betting that most of those who left voluntarily would return. While those who did not leave before the official deadline were banned from returning, those who left under the amnesty were allowed to return legally, if they first registered with their own governments. Malaysia even helped the Indonesian government set up 11 registration centres.

But, to the Malaysian government's chagrin, those who it chased out with threats of beatings and imprisonment have not been eager to return. Of the 380,000 who left, fewer than 40,000 have come back. Stories of mothers clutching their babies in their arms being forced out of their homes by the vigilantes when the amnesty expired may have contributed to their reluctance.

The Indonesian authorities, who were not happy with the forcible expulsion of its citizens who did not leave under the amnesty, have been reluctant to help Malaysia entice back Indonesian workers. Part of the problem has also been extortionate fees levied by Indonesian officials to register the workers. In recent weeks, an increasingly desperate Malaysia has tried to entice in workers from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Burma and Vietnam. But now it has been forced to turn back to Indonesia, and the government has announced it will waive the requirement for immigrant workers to register.

"We're being practical," the Malaysian Home Affairs Minister, Azmi Khalid, said. "We want these people to come back and work here. But we'll be vigilant and we won't open our gates."

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