KUALA LUMPUR, June 29 — When the government issued the movement control order (MCO) in March to combat the Covid-19 outbreak, it was fighting on two fronts.
The first, spearheaded by the Health Ministry, is well known and has had a high degree of success in containing the contagion, saving over 8,200 lives and keeping Malaysia’s coronavirus death count at a comparatively low rate of 121 to date.
Less well known is the crackdown against human trafficking, a multi-agency effort spearheaded by Bukit Aman based on a directive from Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, which have led to sweeping raids and detention of undocumented migrants. Such news have been kept low-key until recently, as authorities claimed it affected national security.
The main objective right now in bringing down human smuggling is to prevent Covid-19 from spreading further so that the MCO may eventually be lifted fully and life can return to some semblance of normalcy.
But to do this, the government had to bring the number of imported cases -- those who become infected with Covid-19 while abroad and pass it on to others in Malaysia -- under control.
Smugglers, and unwittingly their human cargo, may jeopardise that control. Sneaking in and out of the country even during the lockdown by using unauthorised channels -- known in the industry as “rat lanes” -- they were seen as potential virus carriers who would raise the stakes in curbing the contagion many times over.
Their very trade puts human lives on the line, and could have far wider and deeper socio-economic repercussions that could prolong the current pandemic.
Non-government organisation Tenaganita, which focuses on the rights of women, migrants and refugees, has however explained that most foreign workers in Malaysia do not deliberately seek to enter the country illegally.
Most of the time, they are here after being duped by human traffickers who take advantage of the flawed recruitment systems and lax border controls.
Lucrative trade, inside aid
Since its inception on March 18 — when the MCO was first launched — until now, the authorities have arrested 547 people suspected of involvement in human smuggling which has become a very lucrative trade and is largely operated online via social media platforms such as Facebook.
Those arrested comprised Malaysians, and nationals from nearby Asian countries like Indonesians, the Philippines, Bangladesh and Myanmar.
The police-led operation is now in its fourth phase and details are finally emerging.
Bukit Aman Criminal Investigations Department director Huzir Mohamed said investigators are now focused on nabbing rogue officers in the various enforcement agencies who have been aiding and abetting the smugglers and their human cargo who are largely migrants seeking work in Malaysia or using it as a transit to another country.
He said syndicates would charge between RM1,600 and RM3,000 to smuggle each migrant in or out of the country.
Inspector-General of Police Tan Sri Abdul Hamid Bador disclosed on June 19 that several police officers and military personnel have been identified as colluding with the human smugglers following an arrest of 18 enforcers in Johor.
Johor police chief Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay revealed that the southern state’s east coast, which opens to the South China Sea, is often used as a gateway for human smugglers for their illegal activities.
He reportedly said enforcement officers would be paid at least RM10,000 cash for each successful smuggling transaction.
In phase three, which ran between June 4 and 7 during the Aidilfitri holidays, police and the Immigration Department stepped up border patrol. They were on the lookout for migrant workers from neighbouring countries who left Malaysia ahead of the MCO and were looking to return to their jobs here after the government allowed certain industries to operate again.
Through a multi-agency effort, the authorities were able to hobble the operations of the human trafficking syndicates that had made Malaysia their base, by reeling in the transporters, recruitment agents, and even those in charge of housing the victims.
In a June 10 press conference, Huzir said many of those arrested during the Raya sting were repeat human trafficking offenders. He said it showed the laws used on them were not deterrent enough compared to the rewards they stood to gain from smuggling in people.
So this time around, the police used the book on organised crime against 138 people nabbed, and the law on smuggling of migrants on another 285 suspected of being in human smuggling syndicates.
In hopes it will be a stronger deterrent, Bukit Aman is also considering using the Anti-Money Laundering Act to identify and seize the assets and of syndicate members.
The migrant clusters
Malay Mail’s request for data on the Covid-19 infection rate among undocumented migrants in the country was rebuffed by the Health Ministry on the grounds that it would be discriminatory to foreigners.
Although we do not have detailed statistics, Putrajaya have been reported making several announcements claiming a high infection rate among the migrants.
On April 29, Senior Minister (Security Cluster) Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob warned that all undocumented migrants found in Covid-19 “red zones” would be detained starting May 1.
In the capital, three residential and commercial buildings with large migrant populations soon stood out after they were placed under the enhanced movement control order (EMCO): Selangor Mansion, Malaysian Mansion and Menara One City.
Several raids were carried out at hotspots, with those detained including women and children.
However, 771 undocumented migrant workers were found positive for Covid-19 after they were detained in four Immigration depots: located in Bukit Jalil, Semenyih, Sepang and Putrajaya.
Most recently, Health director-general Datuk Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah announced three new clusters nationwide on June 24, just as Malaysia started reporting single digit infections again.
One was in Bukit Bintang, the central business district; the second was in a condominium in the Selangor district of Hulu Langat, which has already been subject to several EMCOs that mostly affected the migrant workers living in the area; and the third was a construction site in Kuching, Sarawak which borders Kalimantan, Indonesia.