Thursday, September 21, 2006

Illegal migrant workers tell tales of hope and disappointment

National News - August 22, 2006

Fadli, The Jakarta Post, Tanjung Pinang

Illegal immigrant worker Ahmad Affandi recently landed back at Tanjung Pinang's Sri Bintan Pura Port with nothing more than the shirt on his back.

Since that morning when the 35-year-old left from the repatriation terminal in Johor Bahru, Malaysia, he had only eaten a single piece of bread and drank one bottle of cheap water.

Ahmad and his wife, Aminah Tunjahro, 27, first set foot on Malaysian soil in February, placing their only 11-year-old child in the care of Ahmad's parents back home in Madura, East Java.

They only had one thing in mind, to seek a better life. Neither of them were discouraged by the prospect of being caught and deported by Malaysian authorities, which have been cracking down on illegal aliens for the past few years.

After only six months of working, Ahmad was caught by officials and jailed for several months before being sent back home along with his wife and 637 other Indonesians.

Ahmad said he spent Rp 3.2 million (US$347) to arrange for a passport, exit tax and transportation using the services of an illegal employment agent. He entered the country by boat on a tourist visa with about 60 other people.

"I took the 'project boat', a term used for boats carrying illegal migrant workers with a guarantee they enter Malaysia without going through complicated immigration procedures," Ahmad said.

"But upon arriving in Malaysia, they are on their own."

In early July, he was caught by the Malaysian police while working as a construction laborer at the Damansara Perdana housing complex in Kuala Lumpur.

The project boats take a different route than those plied by the regular ferries from Batam, Tanjung Pinang and Tanjung Balai Karimun. The normal boats stop in Johor state's Pasir Gudang and Stulang Laut ports, while the illegal boats stop in Plunggur.

At this entry point the "passengers" are guaranteed relaxed immigration procedures. Most importantly, they don't have to present customs officials evidence they possess at least RM 1,000 (Rp 2.47 million), the normal criteria to weed out illegals from legitimate tourists.

Fifteen-year-old Jayadi from Lombok had been working as a coconut peeler in a plantation in Johor. "I had to work there to supplement the family income back home. We are poor and have nothing. I went there with borrowed money," said Jayadi, who only finished elementary school on the island.

With only two shirts and a pair of pants, the teenager left for Malaysia early this year through Batam. He too was recruited by an illegal employment agent and his elder brother arranged for his departure.

Jayadi worked as a husker earning RM30 for every 1,000 coconuts he peeled. However, after being employed for just under six months, he too was caught by a unit tasked to round up illegal immigrants in Malaysia and deported with Ahmad.

The two also did time in Kajang prison near Kuala Lumpur for working without a permit. However, this punishment did not discourage them from returning to Malaysia.

"I still want to return to Malaysia because of the better salary there compared to that in Indonesia. I want to buy a farm for my parents," Jayadi said.

The Malaysian government now regularly repatriates illegal immigrants through Tanjung Pinang port. Hundreds of tired-looking people squatting in lines like prisoners of war and carrying plastic bags stuffed with their few belongings are a common sight.

Based on data from the Tanjung Pinang Manpower Office, the number of deported illegals streaming into the port has steadily increased since October 2004, when the city became a repatriation point for migrant workers.

In 2005, 12,000 illegal immigrants, mostly men, were repatriated through Tanjung Pinang, while 12,000 more were waiting in quarantine between January and July this year.

Tanjung Pinang Illegal Immigrants task force secretary Agus Guntur told The Jakarta Post that the number of people deported was getting larger as Malaysian investigations became more sophisticated.

Every illegal immigrant repatriated to Tanjung Pinang spends one night in a quarantine hall which can accommodate around 600 people, before they are organized according to their places of origin.

"We don't have any budget to handle the returning illegal immigrants, so preparations are meager. Our workers deal with the returning batch voluntarily, without any budget allocations," Agus said.

Despite the illegal migration problem, which has been frequently acknowledged by Indonesian and Malaysian governments, Riau Islands manpower office head Azman Taufik claimed the office had found few indications of illegal migrants departing from the province's ports.

"Please report them to me if there is proof. Just report the situation and describe it to us, so we'll take stern action," Azman told the Post. He said he was unsure of the exact number of employment agencies operating in the Riau Islands.

There are estimated to be around 1.9 million Indonesian migrants working legally in Malaysia.

In Johor state, of the 280,000-strong foreign workforce, 210,000 are Indonesians.

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