Malaysian authorities have arrested some 140 migrant workers in the past week, according to media reports, soon after Amnesty International released a report documenting police abuses and exploitation of migrants by employers.
The arrests are part of an announced crackdown on migrants, many of whom come from Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Nepal, who live and work in Malaysia without authorization, reports said. Malaysian authorities have arrested hundreds of migrants since the crackdown began at the end of February, according to news reports.
Those arrested face protracted detention in overcrowded immigration detention centres.
Migrants who are found to have violated the immigration laws are subject to substantial fines, imprisonment and in some cases caning.
"These immigration raids sweep up documented as well as undocumented workers," said Michael Bochenek, the report author and director of policy at Amnesty International. "Regardless of immigration status, nobody should be subjected to arbitrary arrest or appalling detention conditions."
Employers routinely demand that workers turn over their passports, meaning that migrants who have authorization to work in Malaysia often have only photocopies of their passport and work permit. Authorities frequently do not accept photocopied documents as proof of lawful status.
Untrained volunteers with the People's Volunteer Corps (Ikatan Relawan Rakyat or RELA) often participate in immigration raids. These volunteers are often unfamiliar with the documents they are examining, but they enjoy broad powers to enter private homes without warrants, question suspects, and make arrests.
Refugees, including from Myanmar, who hold cards issued by the local office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) are among those caught up in the immigration sweeps this month. Malaysia does not recognize refugee status, but authorities had recently committed not to arrest and detain those holding UNHCR cards.
The detention of refugees in this month's round-ups was a step back from that positive policy development, Amnesty International said.
Police and RELA agents both subject migrants to acts of harassment, extortion and violence, but RELA agents are responsible for the most rampant abuses against migrants, the Amnesty International report found.
Senior immigration officials assured Amnesty International in July 2009 that RELA no longer had a role in immigration enforcement.
Nevertheless, Amnesty International continued to receive reports of arrests and abuses by RELA agents throughout 2009 and the beginning of 2010. On March 21, an Amnesty International representative observed about 40 RELA agents checking immigration documents in the area of Kuala Lumpur's central market.
Judges can and often do impose caning on migrants convicted of illegal entry. Nearly 35,000 migrants were caned between 2002 and 2008, the Malaysian government has confirmed.
Known as "whipping" in Malaysia, this punishment involves up to six strokes of the rotan, a thin wooden cane.
It leaves deep welts on the buttocks that take days to heal and is profoundly humiliating.
The practice violates the international prohibition on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment.
Amnesty International has sought meetings with the Home Affairs and Human Resources ministries to present its findings and recommendations. To date, neither ministry has confirmed a meeting.
After the release of Amnesty International's report, Minister of Home Affairs Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein announced in an interview with The Star (Kuala Lumpur) that his ministry would act against those who exploited and abused migrant workers. Trapped: The Exploitation of Migrant Workers in Malaysia documents widespread abuses against migrant workers from eight South Asian and Southeast Asian countries who are lured to Malaysia by the promise of jobs but are instead used in forced labour or exploited in other ways.