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Philippines and Malaysia Reach Agreement on Illegal Migrants - 2002-09-04

Manila and Kuala Lumpur are close to an agreement to reduce the hardships faced by illegal workers being deported from Malaysia. An international migrants organization also is stepping up to help the deported workers.

The plan to help the workers is the result of a visit by a Philippine delegation to camps where thousands of workers wait to go home.

The delegation Wednesday, completed an assessment of three camps in the Malaysian state of Sabah on Borneo Island. Philippine and Indonesian workers were forced into the camps in Borneo after Malaysia cracked down on illegal migrants. Nur Jaafar, who led the Philippine delegation, says he is satisfied with the visit and the agreement to help the workers.

"They have agreed in principle, subject to the approval of our governments, on the working arrangements we will be trying to come up with."

He says the Sabah state government is addressing the problems in the camp and is relaxing some of the anti-migrant laws.

Several hundred-thousand Indonesian and Philippine citizens have fled Malaysia since tough new laws went into effect last month. Illegal workers now are subject to jail terms, fines, and caning. Many of those leaving have become stranded in the camps on Borneo waiting for transport home.

Reports of deaths, including those of children, in the camps triggered protests in Jakarta and Manila, and soured relations in the region.

But Mr. Nur Jaafar says the process will improve.

"There are some improvements needed, you know, in the deportation process on this side and on the side of the Philippines. It all depends on the capacity in the Philippines to receive our citizenry in that area."

On the Indonesian side of Borneo, an estimated 40,000 workers are stranded in camps.

Richard Danziger runs the International Organization for Migration office in Jakarta. His organization is holding talks with the Jakarta government on the situation and is assisting the workers in the Indonesian camps.

He says many of the migrants are applying for visas to return to Malaysia.

"Certainly if you look at the employment situation or unemployment situation in Indonesia, it would be difficult for all these people to go back home and find a sustainable livelihood."

Mr. Danziger also says Kuala Lumpur appears to be relaxing its stance, because many Malaysian companies desperately need the foreign workers.