SUNGAI BULOH, Aug 16 ― Illegal immigrants have not taken over the Sungai Buloh Leprosy Settlement as reported, but resident Lee Chor Seng thinks some may be living very close by.
The 81-year-old former leprosy patient and current vice-president of the Sungai Buloh Settlement Council said most of the illegal immigrants cleared out when the authorities raided the place three years ago.
However, some of them did not move very far away.
“They have all gone to live in the jungle areas and some live outside the settlement area.
“They know that if they remain here, the authorities will come after them,” Lee told Malay Mail when met at his home in the 568-acre settlement, once a restricted zone, but now open to the public and for the past couple of decades a popular weekend haunt among urbanites looking to green their concrete homes with plants.
Lee was responding to a report by Malay daily Berita Harian (BH) on Monday, which claimed that many illegal immigrants had moved into the abandoned chalets that once housed as many as 2,440 leprosy patients in the 1950s, and made it their new home with access to utilities and even washing machines.
The report drew the attention of Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad who warned that the authorities will crack down on illegals occupying the settlement.
This comes as Bernama reported that 32 immigrants were arrested for various offences in Sungai Buloh yesterday, following checks on more than 50 foreigners.
Selangor Immigration Department director Mohd Shukri Nawi was quoted saying that those who were detained live and work as gardeners in the area.
Meanwhile, Lee believes the BH report dates back to 2016, when large numbers of migrant workers employed as cleaners at the University Teknologi Mara (UiTM) Medical Faculty and the Sungai Buloh Hospital nearby first appeared in the settlement.
“When that happened, so many of the immigrants suddenly appeared in this area.
“I feel that this is how it all started. The immigrants started bringing their friends into this area,” he related.
He was uncertain if those “friends” had work permits or not, but said the jobs undertaken by the immigrants at the university campus and hospital were those spurned by locals due to too many conditions attached.
“They set an age limit and a lot of other conditions which drew the locals away. That is how they ended up with hiring immigrants. Whether they have work permits or not, we don't know.
“What I want to say is, before the government comes and arrest people at the leprosy settlement, they should check on the workers who work at the university and hospital. Be fair,” he said.
Lee who opened a plant nursery in 1988 said many other owners in the settlement also hired migrants for the labour-intensive tasks, but said these employees had proper work permits.
“As persons who contracted leprosy before, we are old, and some of us are handicapped.
“We are not able to work the nursery on our own. That is why we hired some foreign workers to help us,” he explained.
Lee also explained that not all the chalets had been abandoned.
Three years ago, when news broke that illegal immigrants had made 15 chalets their home, the Immigration Department and Health Ministry raided the settlement and demolished several houses to prevent further occupancy.
“There are about 59 former leprosy patients who still occupy the chalets; what is left of the population from the ‘50s. Some of them live with their children while some still have their relatives come by to visit them.
“They have nowhere to go. That is their home since they were admitted to be treated here,” he said.
A second-generation nursery owner said some of the migrants in the area had taken to planting grass for sale, as side income.
Like Lee, she does not believe that the migrants working nearby had moved into the vacant chalets.
“When a leprosy patient dies, utility supplies to the particular chalet will be cut off. So it isn't possible for anyone to live in these chalets,” said the woman who requested for anonymity.
The woman owner who inherited the nursery from her parents who were both leprosy patients at Sungai Buloh described relations between the local business owners and migrants as “healthy”.
“They don't disturb us, we don't disturb them. They do grass planting, we focus on flowers, house plants and fruits.
“We understand that they too need to earn a living, just like we do. We don't feel what they are doing is illegal. As long as they don't cause trouble, we are fine with them working here,” she said.
Plant nurseries started popping up in the leprosy settlement in the 1960s, after patients were taught how to do simple gardening and later converted into businesses to earn pocket money.
The area within the settlement where the nursery businesses are now located is popularly known as the Valley of Hope.
Valley of Hope is a project established by the Sungai Buloh Settlement Council in 2016, to collect stories of leprosy survivors as part of awareness efforts on the disease.