The regularisation of more than 2 lakh undocumented Bangladeshi migrants in Malaysia has become uncertain as the Malaysian government's labour recalibration programme is scheduled to end on Wednesday.
The country's government may however extend this programme further because thousands of migrant workers could not utilise the opportunity to become regularised due to the onslaught of Covid-19 pandemic, a number of Malaysian media outlets said.
Many migrants also blamed the authorities in Bangladesh for reportedly being late in delivering their passports, which created problems for both documented and undocumented workers and made it very difficult for the irregular ones to register under this programme.
"I had applied for a new passport 6 months ago. When I checked the status of my application online, it showed that my passport is ready in Dhaka, but it is yet to reach the Bangladesh High Commission in Malaysia," Bangladeshi migrant Omar Prodhan wrote on the high commission's verified Facebook page on Monday.
Mohon Tahamina, another migrant in the country, commented, "It has been eight months since I applied to renew my passport. Now I cannot find a date while trying to apply for an appointment online. Does anyone know what I should do? My visa ends this October."
Under the Malaysian government's Labour Recalibration Plan, workers who want to regularise under an employer must have at least 18 months of validity in their passport.
Following the announcement of this initiative last November, Bangladesh High Commission in Malaysia received 1.1 lakh passport applications in the following two weeks, sources have said.
Though the applications were processed in Kuala Lumpur in a speedy manner and sent to Dhaka through online, the printed passports did not arrive at the Bangladesh High Commission in Malaysia in time. This delay left the workers in a lurch, many migrants have claimed.
They seek to get their hands on their passports as soon as possible, so that undocumented workers can take the opportunity to get regularised, and documented ones can extend their visas.
What is the Labour Recalibration Plan?
Last November, the Malaysian government announced the Labour Recalibration Plan to allow employers in the construction, manufacturing, plantation and agriculture sectors to legally employ undocumented foreign workers.
Later in April this year, a new category of employers were allowed to participate in the initiative to prevent critical sectors from suffering losses due to a lack of workers.
It was extended to employers in the sub-sectors of the service industry (such as restaurants), cargo, wholesale and retail, and cleaning services. An employer has to apply to the Labour Department for hiring such foreign workers, and no third parties will be involved in the process.
Under the labour recalibration programme, 5,151 employers in Malaysia have so far sent the names and details of 110,817 illegal workers to the government, reports Malaysian online news portal The Star on 12 June.
But on Tuesday, a Bangladeshi journalist based in Malaysia named Ahmadul Kobir told The Business Standard over phone that the employers of Malaysia have sent the names of around 1.5 lakh illegal workers of various countries till date and around 14% of them are Bangladeshis.
The programme mainly covers undocumented workers from 15 countries including Bangladesh, Myanmar, Nepal, Cambodia and Thailand.
Kobir further said, "The registration process under the recalibration program became slower because the immigration department of Malaysia could not respond fast enough to the employers' applications.
"The lockdown also played a role to make the process even slower. The 30 June deadline may extend further to include more workers under this programme."
Addressing the issue, Counselor (Labour) Mohammad Zahirul Islam of the Bangladesh High Commission, Kuala Lumpur said, "To extend the recalibration programme's deadline, we have to wait for Malaysian authorities' declaration in this regard."
Refuting the claim of a delay in passport delivery, he said, "We have been giving the highest priority on issuing passports. Any delay in the process is a very rare case."
Many Bangladeshi workers have become undocumented in Malaysia after going to the country though legal process. Some stayed there illegally after entering as a student or a tourist. There are also media reports of Bangladeshis illegally entering Malaysia on boats or by crossing borders.
Repatriation Recalibration Plan
Alongside the Labour Recalibration Plan, the Malaysian government had also announced Repatriation Recalibration Plan with the same deadline, which allows undocumented immigrants to voluntarily return to their homeland.
So far, 97,892 illegal immigrants from 15 countries including Bangladesh had signed up for the repatriation programme till mid-June, media reports say. Of them, 80,284 illegal immigrants returned home so far, while the rest are waiting to leave Malaysia.
However, the Bangladesh High Commission in Malaysia could not confirm how many Bangladeshi irregular migrants have registered to return home under this programme.
"Many registered Bangladeshi workers are having problems in returning home due to the suspension of flights amid the pandemic," said Nazmul Huda Chowdhury, a migrant and also the president of Bangladesh Probashi Bondhu Sangathan, Malaysia.
"The Immigration Department expects more illegal immigrants to leave the country if the repatriation recalibration programme is extended until the year-end, with close to 100,000 foreigners having been sent home already," reports The Star.
Malaysia's Immigration Department Director General Datuk Khairul Dzaimee Daud recently said the extension of this programme is necessary as the department needed more time to process existing applications.
He told The Star that the Covid-19 pandemic and national lockdown had somewhat affected the smooth running of the programme.
With an extension, Malaysia expects more undocumented migrants to take up the offer to go back. It also hopes that employers will take up the extra time given to register their foreign workers in order to give them proper documentation, he said.
Malaysia is home to around 8 lakh Bangladeshis, according to an unofficial estimate. The labour market remains closed for Bangladeshi workers since 2018.
Malaysia extended its full lockdown until daily new Covid-19 cases drop below 4,000, and its targets on vaccination and intensive care unit (ICU) bed usage are met, the country's Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin said on 27 June.
The lockdown was originally due to end on Monday, but Malaysia is still averaging above 5,000 cases a day nearly four weeks into the lockdown.
Muhyiddin did not specify the duration of the extension, but indicated that it would continue until daily new cases drop below 4,000, according to Malaysian national news agency Bernama.