In the late 1970s, there was an exodus of Vietnamese ‘boat people’, most who ended up on the East Coast of West Malaysia. The UNHCR immediately set up a refugee camp on Bidong Island to house the refugees, who could be considered political refugees, those who had ‘collaborated’ with the South Vietnamese government and/or the Americans.
The West then started ‘processing’ these refugees and many were given asylum in the west on humanitarian grounds. This sent out a signal to those who wanted to escape Vietnam that they were most welcome in Malaysia, and thereon would be sent to the rich western countries as their new homeland.
The second wave of Vietnamese boat people that reached Malaysia were no longer political refugees who fled Vietnam for fear of their lives but ‘economic’ refugees who just wanted to seek a better life in the west. Hence it was all now about money and the pursuit of a better life that their homeland could not offer them.
Mainly, this is a problem of poor people from poor countries migrating, legally or illegally, to more prosperous countries for economic reasons. This is happening the world over, not only in Malaysia. And this is possible because of the existence of syndicates that, for a large sum of money, will help smuggle these illegal immigrants across borders.
Sabah, too, is facing this same problem. And it is a problem not only because there are syndicates that for a fee will help smuggle these people across borders but also because there are employers who are prepared to employ illegal workers.
We can no longer handle this matter with kid gloves. The government needs to come down hard not only on the syndicates and employers who employ illegal workers but also on the many illegal immigrants walking free on the streets of Sabah. The illegal immigrant problem is a serious social and security problem that will turn into a political problem if there is no political will to confront what is starting to become a crisis.
We may have to address this problem the way we handled the Vietnamese boat people back in the 1970s. Those without valid papers must be rounded up and placed in transit camps. Alternatively, they can be confined to one of the islands off Semporna where they can easily be monitored and supervised.
The district of Semporna makes sense because the illegal immigrants share the same cultural background as the people from that area plus this is their main entry point. Then those that do not have any right to remain in Malaysia should be deported to their country of origin.
By allowing these illegal immigrants to roam free we are sending out a message that they are welcome in Malaysia. Only when they see that life in Malaysia is not better than life back in their homeland can we deter them from illegally entering Malaysia.
This may sound drastic and cruel but it is even crueller to prolong the social and security problem that Malaysians have to suffer due to a high influx of illegal immigrants who have no right to remain in Malaysia.