Tue, 06 Aug 2002

Deported workers in limbo, unemployment worries loom

Fabiola Desy Unidjaja and Ridwan M. Sijabat, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

Adding insult to the injury of thousands of Indonesian illegal migrant workers who are being deported from Malaysia is the reluctance of many regency administrations to welcome returning workers home.

These workers have now been banned from entering several provinces designated as entry points to the country and transit sites to their hometowns.

Some 500,000 illegal Indonesian workers tried to flee Malaysia at the last minute before the government imposed strict new legislation on Aug. 1 to crack down on illegal workers.

The massive exodus has flooded the country's border areas with thousands of jobless people waiting to return to their hometowns.

"This is like an unforeseen disaster," East Java Deputy Governor Imam Supardi said on Monday, as quoted by Antara.

North Sumatra Governor T. Rizal Nurdin had earlier threatened to turn ships away unless the central government funded the workers' passage home.

"We have no money and the central government still owes us Rp 300 million (US$33,333) for the repatriation of more than 6,000 illegal workers to their hometowns in East Java and West Nusa Tenggara in 1998," he said in Medan over the weekend.

A small number of the illegal workers have taken planes and passenger ships, but the majority have had to rely on three Navy warships deployed by the government.

As of Sunday evening, more than 130,000 workers, mostly from West Nusa Tenggara and East Nusa Tenggara, were still stranded in Tawau in Malaysia's Sabah state, and Nunukan in East Kalimantan, waiting for transport home while tens of thousands of others were still heading for transit points in Malaysia.

East Nusa Tenggara Deputy Governor Johanis Pake Pani and his entourage paid a visit to Tawau and Nunukan on Sunday, but did nothing to help the deported workers.

More than 400 penniless workers from East Java, East Nusa Tenggara and West Nusa Tenggara were stranded at Makassar and Parepare seaports in South Sulawesi unable to pay their way home.

President Megawati Soekarnoputri established a task force on Monday to deal with any deportation problems and the possibility of sending the workers back to Malaysia.

"We will agree upon any new arrangements during the visit of Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad on Wednesday," Coordinating Minister for People's Welfare Jusuf Kalla said.

The minister said the central government had allocated Rp 5 billion to immediately take care of the deported workers.

He played down the fear that the deported would create massive additions to the country's unemployment rate.

"We will send them back to Malaysia. They have money, they are not refugees," the minister added.

The crackdown on illegal workers and their deportation has sparked strong protests and criticism of both the Malaysian authorities and the Indonesian government.

AFP quoted residents and officials in Kuala Lumpur as saying on Sunday there were still a large number of illegal workers who had not left Malaysia despite the possibility of being jailed or caned.

"They are willing to take the risk. They think the government will slow down its operation to rid the country of illegal workers," said Mat Rozi, 32, who lives just south of the capital Kuala Lumpur in a neighborhood comprising Indonesian immigrants.

The New Straits Times reported on Saturday that 600 illegal workers had been arrested since Aug. 1.

On Monday, the Federation of Malaysian Manufacturers (FMM) warned the government that a labor shortage caused by the expulsion of illegal workers could hit Malaysia's economy hard.

"The government's move to repatriate illegal workers on Aug. 1 is expected to have a significant impact," the federation said in a statement.

The Panca Karsa Foundation, which deals with troubled workers, said Malaysia's new legislation would not only adversely affect Malaysia's economy but would also raise serious problems in Indonesia.

Endang Susilowati, chairwoman of the foundation, said Malaysia was being unfair as it had benefited from Indonesian workers.

"Apart from the new immigration law, Malaysia is discriminatory and unfair," she said in Mataram, West Nusa Tenggara on Sunday.