(London) - The Malaysian government’s plan to begin arresting and deporting hundreds of thousands of undocumented migrant workers in the coming weeks may result in widespread rights abuses. Refugees and victims of human trafficking may be caught up in the sweeps and deported instead of receiving protection.

“When Malaysia conducted mass deportations two years ago, dozens of migrant workers died of dehydration and disease while stranded in transit areas for months,” said LaShawn R. Jefferson, executive director of the Women’s Rights division of Human Rights Watch. “These deportations will only drive refugees and trafficking victims deeper underground and put them at greater risk of exploitation.”

Malaysian authorities plan to begin arresting undocumented migrants in December or January. According to the Immigration Department, Malaysian authorities will conduct a 14-day investigation into each case and then press charges against undocumented migrants in federal courts. Those found guilty under the Immigration Act of 2002 may be caned, imprisoned for five years, fined heavily, and detained indefinitely pending deportation. Last year, some 18,000 (updated Dec. 13, 2004) migrants were caned in Malaysia.

Approximately two million migrants work in Malaysia, primarily in construction, palm oil plantations and domestic service. More than one million lack valid work permits. Many of these migrants will likely be deported back to Indonesia, Bangladesh, India or the Philippines without receiving their full wages for months of work.

Human Rights Watch expressed grave concern about the potential for a wide range of human rights abuses during the expulsions. These include the use of excessive force during immigration raids and the prolonged detention of migrants in unsanitary conditions. Malaysia’s national human rights commission, SUHAKAM, has documented the overcrowded conditions of Malaysia’s detention centers.

Human Rights Watch also noted that Malaysian authorities may fail to distinguish trafficking victims, abused migrant workers and refugees from other undocumented migrants, deporting them instead of providing assistance. SUHAKAM has noted that many foreign women currently in Malaysia’s prisons are actually trafficking victims.

In an ominous move, the Malaysian government is planning to grant authority to 400,000 civilian members of the Rukun Tetangga and the Rela, volunteer neighborhood security associations, to conduct immigration raids and arrests. Under current proposals, these civilians will receive minimal training, and will obtain significant cash rewards for each migrant apprehended. Human Rights Watch called on Malaysia’s Home Ministry to rescind this plan.

“Allowing civilian groups to conduct immigration raids and arrests encourages vigilantism and undermines the rule of law.” said Jefferson.

The Malaysian government should institute adequate screening programs to identify abused migrant workers, trafficking victims and refugees, and it must provide for the protection of these vulnerable individuals. It should also amend the Immigration Act of 2002 to remove provisions for long-term imprisonment and other harsh or disproportionate penalties, including caning.

The United Nations High Commission on Refugees has estimated that 28,000 refugees currently live in Malaysia. About 10,000 are from the war-torn Aceh region of Indonesia, and another 10,000 are members of Burma’s Rohingya Muslim minority. Human Rights Watch welcomes Malaysia’s recent measure to grant the Rohingya permission to remain in the country. But the plight of other refugee groups, particularly the Acehnese, who may face torture if sent back to Indonesia, remains uncertain.

Migrants facing abuse from their employers will likely be swept up in these raids with little protection. As Human Rights Watch has previously reported, Indonesian domestic workers in Malaysia often work grueling 16 to 18 hour days, seven days a week, and earn less than 25 U.S. cents per hour. Some suffer physical or sexual abuse at the hands of their employers. Malaysia and Indonesia recently shelved plans to create a labor agreement guiding the recruitment and protection of domestic workers.

If a domestic worker runs away from her employer, she loses her legal status. Seventeen thousand domestic workers left their employers in 2003, and many of these cases may have involved some form of abuse. The Malaysian government has not indicated how it will respond to such complaints by arrested migrants.

Under an amnesty ending in December, undocumented migrants may leave the country without penalty. More than 80,000 migrants, mostly Indonesian, have left. The Indonesian government has begun setting up shelters and support services for returning migrants at entry points into Indonesia, but it remains unclear whether these arrangements will be sufficient to handle hundreds of thousands of returnees and to avoid the deaths and other abuses that occurred in mid-2002.