More than 2,000 illegal migrant workers in Malaysia are facing deportation amid one of the largest crackdowns in recent years, with campaigners concerned this has forced immigrants into hiding and increased the risk of human trafficking.
Malaysia relies heavily on migrant workers from countries including Indonesia, Bangladesh and Nepal for jobs shunned by the locals such as those on plantations and in construction.
It has some two million registered migrant workers but also an equal number of undocumented ones.
A senior immigration official said 2,309 undocumented workers have been arrested during mass raids across the country since July 1 in places like factories and restaurants.
"[They] will be investigated within 14 days and prosecuted before deportations take place," Saravana Kumar, the Immigration Department's enforcement, investigation and prosecution chief, told Reuters on Thursday.
He said the majority of those arrested are from Bangladesh and Indonesia, and entered the country with tourist visas and without proper work permits.
He said 52 employers were also picked up during these raids on suspicion of hiring undocumented workers.
Activists, however, said most of the undocumented workers were victims of human trafficking and fraud, who have incurred massive debts after paying off recruitment agents in the hope of getting a job abroad to escape poverty at home.
"The onus is on the employers and agents to get the work permits. How do you expect migrant workers to do this when their hands are tied?" said Aegile Fernandez, a director from Kuala Lumpur-based migrant rights group Tenaganita. "It's unjust to arrest and handcuff them, then put them in detention centers and deport them. They have paid money to employers and agents to get permits but it is not done."
Local media said some workers had left their dormitories during the raids and gone into hiding.
Fernandez said these workers were at increased risk of human trafficking as some were now trying to leave the country.
Kumar of the Immigration Department said authorities will find out whether those who are held are trafficking victims.
Malaysia was upgraded to Tier 2 in the U.S. State Department's 2017 trafficking report last week from Tier 2 Watch List, meaning it was not fully complying with U.S. standards but was making significant efforts to do so.
Tier 3 is for the worst offenders of forced labor and trafficking, while nations at Tier 1 are meeting U.S. standards.
In neighboring Thailand, tens of thousands of migrant workers — most of them from Myanmar — have fled the country in recent days after new labor regulations aimed at regulating the foreign workforce were introduced.