Fearing raids and uncertainties ahead, migrants vanish into the forest

The government has attracted condemnation from rights groups for going back on its word to spare undocumented migrants during the Covid-19 pandemic.

PETALING JAYA: A series of controversial immigration crackdowns which authorities defend as part of the war against Covid-19 has forced undocumented migrants to flee to the jungles in a bid to avoid detention centres which recently reported a sharp spike in infections.

FMT understands that many have made the jungles of Johor, Terengganu and Kelantan their temporary refuge, with food supplied by their fellow countrymen who have legal documents.

Several foreign workers also told FMT that a number of their friends had “escaped” into the thick jungles near Yong Peng, as well as near the coastal areas of Terengganu and Kelantan.

“Many who escaped to Pahang are living in remote villages, while those in cities have locked themselves in their houses,” a 38-year-old Bangladeshi told FMT after being assured that his identity would not be revealed.

The man who wanted to be known only as Abdul said he and his countrymen were ready to return to Bangladesh if the Malaysian government would announce an amnesty.

“We don’t want to be here because of the government. We are afraid,” he said, referring to recent raids despite assurances that there would be no action against undocumented foreigners during the movement control order, enforced on March 18.

“We do not know what the authorities will do to us,” Abdul told FMT. “Can we use our phones? Can we talk to our family? How long will they keep us?”

The health ministry has been reporting a spike in Covid-19 infections involving migrants detained at immigration depots nationwide.

Statistics released by health director-general Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah for May 25 and 26 showed that some 300 migrants were infected with Covid-19, the bulk of whom were detainees at immigration depots.

For his part, Abdul is convinced that the majority of undocumented Bangladeshis will voluntarily return to their country under an amnesty, adding that they have the financial means to pay the penalties and fines in order to secure their flights home.

A group of foreign migrants in a police truck after they were picked up in Kuala Lumpur. Many migrants fear that they will be placed in risky detention centres which have reported a spike in Covid-19 infections.

He said the authorities could announce the flight schedules in the news, and they would be present at the airport.

When contacted, however, immigration director-general Khairul Dzaimee Daud rejected the proposal.

Instead, he said foreigners without legal papers would have to face the full force of the law.

“We will get them,” he told FMT ahead of the government’s announcement today that it would only allow such passage for migrants with valid documents.

But Abdul said many migrants were willing to be quarantined in their own countries.

“Not in Malaysia,” he added. “Most of us also keep aside at least four to five months’ worth of salary in cash for emergencies.”

Abdul is illiterate, but seems to have done well during his stay in Malaysia.

He arrived five years ago through an employment agent whom he and his friends paid RM5,000 each.

“The agent paid the authorities here and we were given jobs,” he said, adding that he raised his money from his savings and by pawning his wife’s jewellery.

He worked as a brick layer at a construction site in Kuala Lumpur before opening a small lot to sell textiles in the city centre.

With the help of a relative, they managed to make about RM3,000 per month.

“That is a lot of money for us because our overheads are low,” he added.

When asked how his relative, who was on a visitor’s visa, had managed to avoid immigration authorities for several years, Abdul only smiled.

Another undocumented migrant, Jay, said he was making about RM1,700 a month cleaning the windows of high-rise buildings.

But unlike Abdul, Jay is more savvy with technology.

“I learnt about e-commerce and I sell leather through a website,” he said, adding that his online business earned him between RM100 and RM700 every month.

Jay, too, is ready to return home and undergo Covid-19 quarantine measures there.

Meanwhile, migrants from Thailand, Vietnam and Myanmar are finding it difficult to escape immigration raids.

Kwa, from Thailand, said he and his fellow countrymen used to pay “agents” RM300 to RM500 for passage across the border.

But with Covid-19 restrictions, many are turning to Langkawi as an escape route.

“They pay fishermen some money to cross over. In 30 minutes, we can be at the Thai border,” he told FMT.

He said there had been a flurry of activity across the border during the Songkran festival last month.

“Many went back to celebrate the festival with their families in Thailand,” he said.

As for Filipinos, many depend on middlemen to send them back.

A Filipino nightclub worker, Suzy, said many like her were able to earn good money, including from prostitution.

But with no nightlife in Kuala Lumpur as cover for their “part-time jobs”, many have resolved to return home.

“Once we leave, we may come back, but that depends on how strict the border patrolling is,” said Suzy.

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