Illegal immigration to Malaysia

In its broadest sense within the Malaysian context, illegal immigration to Malaysia refers to the cross-border movement of people to reside in Malaysia, under conditions where official authorisation is lacking, breached, expired, fraudulent, or irregular in some way. The cross-border movement of workers has become a well-established feature of Southeast Asia, with Malaysia one of the major labour receiving countries, and Indonesia and the Philippines the region’s main labour sending states. At the same time, managing all the various forms of cross-border migration (particularly labour migration, refugee migration, and human trafficking) has become an issue of increasing concern, both within Malaysia and in its international relations.

Terms and definitions

In recent years the designation "illegal", when applied to "migration" and "migrant", has been increasingly replaced - most often by the terms “irregular” and "undocumented"[1] - on the grounds that the designation "illegal" is inaccurate, degrading, and prejudicial.[2][3] Key institutions have formally adopted the new terms: UN General Assembly (1975), International Labour Organization (2004), European Parliament (2009), Associated Press (2013),[2] and other US news agencies.[3]

But these new terms are rarely used in official and academic discourses in Malaysia, as the popular term used is “illegal immigrant”.[4] Even the contoversial term "illegals", that elsewhere has been perceived as outdated and pejorative,[5] is regularly used in Malaysia's media.[6]

Terminology is also obscured because of law in Malaysia (Immigration Act 1959/63), where there is no distinction between undocumented economic migrants, refugees, asylum seekers, or trafficked persons, with members of all groups designated as illegal immigrants.[7]

So, within the Malaysian context, the term "illegal immigrant" (used in its broadest sense) designates a wide variety of groups, who are all liable to arrest, charge, whipping, detention and deportation for Immigration offences:[4][7][8]


The patterns of migration, as well as the roles and responses of governments in the region with regard to migration, have deep roots in the region's history. The area now known as Malaysia has historically been the crossroads of a region of intense migration, where borders were either lacking or highly permeable.

Pre-colonial migration

For most of human history people were free to move between regions. Malaysia's first generation of migrants consisted of indigenous peoples, the Orang Asli, believed either to have been among the first wave of human migration from Africa around 50,000 years ago, or to belong to the more recent events of Asian human evolution.[9][10]

The Malay Peninsula grew from port towns that thrived on the trade routes from China to India.,[10] and hosted the next groups of migrants as merchants became domiciled in the ports, some settling permanently and assimilating into the local communities.[11] By the 5th century, networks of these towns had evolved into organised political spheres of influence that was defined by its centre rather than its borders. At the periphery, control is less certain, borders may become permeable, control sometimes overlapped, where areas could be subject to several powers, or none.[12]

During the early kingdoms of Langkasuka (2nd century, Malay peninsula), Srivijaya empire (8th century, based on the island of Sumatra, now part of Indonesia), and Malacca Sultanate (15th century, Malay peninsula) the centre of power shifted between Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula. In addition to being linked by political rule, Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula were also linked by intermarriage between Sumatran and Peninsular ruling elite, which led to migration of their followers.

Other significant early migrants are those now classified as Melayu Anak Dagang: non-Malays that migrated to the region and later assimilated into Malay culture (contrasted with Melayu Anak Jati: ethnic Malays that are native to the region):[13] These include the Minangkabau people from Sumatra, Indonesia, and the Bugis people from Sulawesi, Indonesia.[14]

Based on Malaysia's long history as a society of migrants, researchers at University Sains Malaysia assert:[15]

It is however, pertinent to put the record straight that migration of people to the artificially created enclave known as Malaysia today dated back to centuries. Malaysia like many ex-colonies is artificial…

Researcher Anthony Reid draws another conclusion from this history - that Malaysia, like the US and Australia, is best viewed as an immigrant society:[14]

In Malaysia of course official ideology requires that 62% of the population be regarded as ‘sons of the soil’, defined in racial terms rather than place of birth. But there is also an older pre-nationalist tradition there of understanding Malaya as an immigrant society, and a tendency as in other immigrant societies for the relatively recent migrants in all communities to provide much of the innovative energy and leadership...

Post-colonial migration

Refugees and asylum seekers

Malaysia with most of its Southeast Asian neighbours are not the signatories of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, thus have maintained that any newly arrival aliens are illegal immigrants rather than refugees.[16] Since the early 1970s, Malaysia have been allowing other Muslims who stuck in a conflict on their countries to seek refuge in Malaysia especially to the Filipino Muslims in the Southern Philippines.[17] Also in 1975, Malaysia accepted thousands of Cambodian Muslims who had fled Cambodia during the administration of Pol Pot regime. During the Indochina refugee crisis, Malaysia continued to allow a select number of Cambodian Muslims to locally integrate, assisted by the Malaysian Muslim Welfare Organisation (PEKIM), who received funds both from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Malaysian Government.[17] Starting from 1980, Malaysia permitted the local settlement for Rohingya Muslims and Acehnese Muslims who were fleeing the Muslims persecution in Myanmar and Aceh insurgency in Indonesia.[17]

In 2015, the Malaysian Deputy Minister of Home Affairs, Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar, stated that his ministry has spoken on the refugee issue numerous times with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), telling the world organisation that "Malaysia is not a signatory to its convention on refugees". He said that even Malaysia allow any refugees to stay there, the UNHCR should not taking any advantage of Malaysia's compassion to allowing them there, instead it is time for the United Nations to send the refugees to another third-world nation. The minister also reminded that even if Malaysia is seen as an attractive country for the refugees to taking up the jobs that locals did not want to take it due to dangerous, dirty or demeaning nature, both the refugees and the migrant workers should not just take the law into their own hands when in Malaysia.[18] The Malaysian government also stated that they will never sign and have any intention to become part of the convention with its Deputy Foreign Minister, Reezal Merican Naina said:

Although Malaysia doesn't want to become part of the convention, our country will continue to give any assistance needed by the refugees based on humanitarian grounds. Our country only recognised/allowed those (refugees) who registered with UNHCR to seek temporarily shelter in this country before they been moved to another third world countries or return to their place of origin.[19]

Issues in immigration management

Impact on domestic politics

The power to provide a shelters for refugees has been misused by several individuals mostly from the National Registration Department (NRD), when the most serious cases had happened on the east Malaysian state of Sabah to allow thousands of Filipino Muslims acquire the Malaysian identity card through a secret project known as Project IC.[20] It is evidenced that this was done due to an ethnic connection by their own people who already established presence in various Malaysian job positions (such as those who had become either NRD members, politicians or security forces) to bring their relatives of the same roots from their country of origin. For example, a syndicate from Pakistan has a largely Pakistani clients while others syndicate from Myanmar and Indonesia also have their own clients. This is similar to the Filipino cases as when their document producing network expand, they also started to bring more illegal immigrants from their own ethnic community to live here and become Malaysian citizen.[21][22] An officer with Eastern Sabah Security Command claimed that the corruption of local authorities (especially by those who had a similar ethnic groups with the illegals) and illegal issuance of identity cards had played an important role on the high increase of the illegal immigrants especially in Sabah.[23] Former Prime Minister such as Mahathir had continuously support the influx of these illegals, saying they should be given citizenship.[24][25] According to a research by two Filipino researchers, Myfel Joseph Paluga and Andrea Malaya Ragragio of the Department of Social Science University of the Philippines Mindanao, the flood of migrants from Mindanao to Sabah was partly encouraged by certain Sabah politicians who wanted to be the Sultan of Sulu especially after the fall of Sabah Muslim-led parties of United Sabah National Organisation (USNO) and Sabah People's United Front (BERJAYA) administrations.[26] As stated by some source, certain politicians (with similar ethnic roots and religion with the immigrants) inside both of the Malaysian and Sabah State governments has two main political purposes with the first one is to increase the Muslim populations in Sabah to make it became a political stronghold for the government[27] while the second one is to stop the territorial dispute over Sabah with the Philippines by providing such shelters to Filipino Muslims who already discriminated by the Catholic-majority Philippine central government in their homeland of Mindanao[17] without even knowing many of the immigrants comprising militants and criminals that will betraying Malaysia in the future for their own ideologies as evidenced on the 2013 intrusion as well with other past attacks on Sabah and recent kidnappings.[24][25][28][29][30][31] The security command in Sabah ever mentioning;

Although these foreigners stayed in Sabah, their loyalty to their homelands (Mindanao and Sulu Archipelago) in the Philippines never swayed and brought along crimes like drugs, smuggling and piracy. The Filipinos from this region are also vengeful and ill-tempered, where disputes often result in shooting and end in bloody feuds. "A culture they call Rido".[23]

Furthermore, during the uncontrolled influx of Vietnamese boat people to Malaysia, the Malaysian government felt this would threaten its national security and its racial balance as most of the refugees resemble the Chinese people which resulted they been quickly repatriated.[32] The Malaysian government then blamed the United States, accusing them of being principally at fault for causing the Vietnam War and led to a large massive influx of these illegals to Vietnam neighbours,[32] as Malaysia had a phobia resulted from two tragedies that had happened to the country in the past, the 1964 which led to the separation of Singapore and 1969, both between the Malay and Chinese. Meanwhile, thousands of Muslim illegal immigrants from neighbouring countries such as the one from the Southern Philippines and Sulawesi, Indonesia continued to be given permission to stay longer in the country without any restrictions and prediction on what problems they may posed in the near future. Some Sabahan Muslims MP and State Assembly such as Rosnah Shirlin and Abdul Rahim Ismail had already felt the culture problems brought by the Filipinos Muslims today, Rosnah quote;

The refugee camp established on my district has creating a lot of problems for the residents here. The camp has become a drugs den and the source of many other criminal activities. Over the years, many robberies had taken place in nearby villages and the culprits are mostly from the camp. Supposedly, the improved situation in the Philippines today has brought into question whether these Filipinos could still be regarded as refugees. The camp was set up on a 40-acre plot of land near Kampung Laut in the early 1980s by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). But the UNHCR had long ago stopped providing funds to the camp and as a result, many of these foreigners had been working outside the camp. The refugees had even dare to expanded the camp area, encroaching on nearby village land and today, the camp has become the biggest syabu distribution den on my district.[33][34]
Rosnah Shirlin, Sabah Papar's MP.

Rahim support this by saying;

For decades, my village and several villages in my constituency — was a beautifully rustic villages of traditional fishermen, who went about their daily lives with no cause for worry except for the latest catch of the day. Sabah’s long-standing issues with illegal immigration are starting to irk local communities, who live fearing for their safety and culture. The ambience of the village has changed. The most obvious change now is the security fears in the village where I was born and grew up in. There is a colony of some 50 or so illegal immigrants who are living on a private piece of land that was supposedly rented out to them. The illegal immigrants roam around the village, and the town area, the pump boats they use are becoming a common sight here. I’ve brought it up to the authorities before; the police, immigration and district office. I appreciate some steps being taken, but it is not enough to give confidence to the local residents. If left unattended, Sabah will be susceptible to a lot of social ills — illegal drug dealing and consumption, theft and robbery and a “pump boat culture”. The authorities also need to ensure that Sabahan land owners do not rent out their land randomly to anybody and contravening the Sabah Land Ordinance.[35][36]
Abdul Rahim Ismail, Sabah State Legislative Assembly Members for Pantai Manis in Papar.

During a recent Royal Commission of Inquiry on illegal immigrants in Sabah, a number of revelations on the granting of citizenship to illegal immigrants was revealed. A former National Registration Director, Mohd Nasir Sugip revealed that he was part of a top secret operation called 'Ops Durian Buruk' (Operation Rotten Durian),[37] whereby the Election Commission of Malaysia and then deputy former Home Minister Megat Junid Megat Ayub instructed his department to issue national identity cards to foreigners to change the voting demographics in Sabah.[38] During this process of granting national identity cards, the names of 16,000 illegal immigrants were changed under instructions of the Sabah Election Commission.[39] Also former Sabah NRD director Ramli Kamarudin revealed that former Sabah Chief Minister Osu Sukam was present when Megat Junid gave instructions to carry out the project IC exercise.[40]

Several witnesses who benefited from the citizenship for votes scheme have corroborated this assertion, including a Filipino man who said that he was given his identity card without applying for it.[41] Further two witnesses from India and Pakistan said they received identity cards in less than 10 years, instead of going through the normal process of getting permanent residency in 12 years and undergoing naturalisation after being in Malaysia for 10 years more.[42]

Upon knowing this, the secret project had angered many Sabahan natives including neighbouring Sarawak who is the close brother to Sabah.[43] This was mainly due to the fact that many original Bornean natives who are mostly Christians are still stateless without any birth certificates while the newly arrived illegal immigrants can gain Malaysian identity cards in just a short period through the secret project just because they are Muslims.[44]

National security concerns

In 2008, Sabah Deputy Chief Minister claimed that some illegal immigrants attempted to apply to become Malaysian security force members by using their fake identity cards.[45] This has been proved during the searching operation of further members of the Sulu militants in Sabah when one of the detained was a Malaysian police corporal who had a family ties in the southern Philippines. He was believed to have aided militants in illegally entering Sabah and leaving the state.[46] There is another serious case when a security guard from Tawau, Sabah shot dead a bank worker in Subang Jaya, Selangor and robbed a bank there. Initial investigation found the security guard only possessed a fake identity card and was not a Sabahan citizen.[47] The suspect was later identified as an Indonesian coming from Sulawesi.[48] Some politicians such as Kit Siang questioned how the security guard was able to receive a MyKad, which enabled him work in the bank. He quote;

How can this person get a MyKad, and even if the MyKad is fake, how can he be allowed to open up a bank account, receive monthly salary and in fact be given a firearm licence by the Home Ministry? Did this person also vote in the 13th General Election? Is it because the owner of the security firm is a crony of the ruling party? How many foreigners have enjoyed these privileges?[49]
Lim Kit Siang, member of the opposition (DAP).

Apart from Sabah, the porous border in the Straits of Malacca between Peninsular Malaysia and Sumatra also became the hole for Indonesian illegal immigrants to enter the country. This was noticed in 2014 when these illegals frequently sank on the sea due to their overloaded boat to avoid detection from the Malaysian authorities.[50]

Human trafficking issues

In 2014, Malaysia together with Thailand and Venezuela was listed at the third and lowest tier by US Department of State. This was due to Malaysia only doing a little progress to combat the exploitation of foreign migrant workers who are routinely subjected to forced labour conditions and those who had been recruited under false pretenses and later coerced into sex work.[51] Many Rohingya refugees who want to seek a better life in Malaysia have frequently fall in the hand of human traffickers, such as what already happened on northern Malaysia when the traffickers kept them in a houses, beating them, depriving them of food, and demanding a ransom from their families.[52] Many Filipinas who been promised with good jobs in other countries by traffickers in the Philippines also been trafficked to Malaysia as a transit point, leaving them vulnerable to detention from Malaysian authorities for illegal trespassing.[53] Beside that, a large numbers of Vietnamese and Chinese traffickers have shifted their prostitution business to Malaysia which making Vietnamese women at the top list of foreign prostitutes in the country,[54] followed by some Cambodian women.[55] The traffickers tactic usually cheat the victim by offering them jobs in Malaysia with high salary, but once they arrived to meet the trafficker (who have disguised themselves as the manager), the victim will be brought and locked in a house, raped and forced into sex work.[56][57] Chinese traffickers from China who used to kidnap children in their country use their victims to beg in the streets of Kuala Lumpur to raise sympathy from Malaysian citizens for their condition after the children been maimed in their country after been kidnapped though they was originally born healthy.[58][59]

As Malaysia is the centre of electrical parts manufacturing, many major electrical companies has their factories in the country, on which some of the bigger companies like Panasonic and Samsung as well Malaysian fast food chains of McDonald's were accused of practising labour exploitation with poor treatment to their workers.[60][61] There have been also reports on the ongoing poor treatment to Cambodian housemaids,[62][63] with a Cambodian maid detained in one of Malaysian immigration centre saw three women of Cambodian and Vietnamese nationalities die in the centre after been severely tortured with other nationalities like Thai, Indonesian and Laotian prisoners were badly tortured as well.[64] There also reports that Cambodian and Indonesian maid dies after been starved to death by their employers.[65][66] Moreover, baby selling have ongoing in Malaysia for a long time with the babies brought in from countries like Thailand and Cambodia. Some babies will be buyed by couples desperate to start a family while those unfortunate babies are sold to traffickers and forced to become sex slaves or beggars.[67] Prostitution rings also offer babies from their foreign sex workers who get pregnant with some of the sex workers even willingly to contact any couples by themselves to offer their babies as Malaysian laws does not allow migrant workers to bear children in the country.[68]

Social Impact

In 1986, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was found trying to integrate Filipino refugees in Sabah with the local communities if they can't repatriate them back to the Philippines but this was opposed heavily by the locals and Sabah State Government as it could brought a big social problem to the state.[69][70] The UNHCR was found again using the similar methods in 2015 when they issuing refugees cards to refugees in West Malaysia without the consent of the Malaysian government.[71]

Policy responses

Amnesty program

In 2011, Malaysia launch an amnesty programme with codenamed '6P' to reduce the number of illegal immigrants. The 'P' stands for six Malay words beginning with the letter which mean; "Pendaftaran" (registration), "Pemutihan" (legalisation), "Pengampunan" (amnesty), "Pemantauan" (supervision), "Penguatkuasaan" (enforcement) and "Pengusiran" (deportation).[72] All illegal immigrants were given three weeks to take up the offer or face the law if they are arrested without any valid travel documents or work permits.[73] However, some irresponsible people have taken advantage of the loopholes of its implementation, thus, there is a call to strengthen the programme by monitoring management companies who have been appointed as intermediaries between employers and illegal foreign workers.[74]

Punitive actions

The crackdown on illegal immigrants have been carried out frequently by the Malaysian authorities, sometimes without any notice. Since 2014, crackdowns have been more frequent as many illegal immigrants have been found to be using permits of the locals to operate businesses.[75]

Through detention, the illegal immigrants will be imprisoned, caned and finally deported. This was done to help regulate immigration and to remind them to return to their home countries by letting them know to "not flout the law again".[76]

Regional co-operation

A joint border commission has been signed with the Philippines to patrol the illegal immigrants from the Southern Philippines to East Malaysia,[77] while Thailand has agreed to lengthen a border wall along the Malaysian state of Kedah to curb the flows of illegal workers across the Malay–Thai border.[78] Spanish Ambassador to Malaysia María Bassols Delgado has urged the country to have closer ties with other Asean nations to solve the immigrant problem. According to her "close understanding between Asean countries would result in a more effective approach to identify the individuals who entered the country illegally and without identification papers. This would facilitate the process of sending them back to their countries of origin".[79] In 2015, Malaysia receives two patrol vessels from Australia. Malaysia said the assets would used to protect their maritime borders from illegal migration in the Straits of Malacca.[80] Prior to the meeting between Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak in Putrajaya in November 2016, both leaders agree to deport illegal Filipino migrants and refugees in Sabah back to the Philippines with the signing of various agreements including to improve the social conditions of legal Filipino migrants and expatriates in the state with the establishment of a school, hospital and a consulate.[81] In the same month, both Malaysia and Thailand also announce a plan to replace their whole southern border fence into a wall border according to Thai Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwan who got the idea from a recent meeting in Laos with Malaysian counterparts.[82]

See also


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Further reading

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