Malaysia is one of Bangladesh’s largest markets for migrants. The country currently hosts nearly two million Bangladeshi expatriate workers (both documented and undocumented). The Malaysian labor market contributes to billions in remittance revenue for Bangladesh and is a crucial source for foreign country for the nation.
While Malaysia provides endless opportunities for Bangladeshi migrants looking for a better life, there are some challenges to migrant security and safety that both countries will need to coordinate on in order to resolve.
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On February 3, 2024, Malaysian immigration officers raided the Seri Kembangan wholesale market in Selangor state and detained 530 illegal immigrants, including 94 Bangladeshis. The crackdown has also exposed the dangers faced by Bangladeshi migrants in Malaysia.
While this single incident is isolated and rare, and most Bangladeshi workers in Malaysia earn and reside peacefully inside the country; a close analysis of the overall situation reveals several challenges that continue to exist and must be addressed.
A Large and Vulnerable Group
According to the Bangladesh Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training (BMET), Malaysia is the second-largest destination for Bangladeshi migrant workers after Saudi Arabia. As of December 2023, more than 1.2 million Bangladeshis were working in Malaysia, mostly in low-skilled sectors such as construction, plantation, manufacturing and services. However, this figure does not include the undocumented migrants, who are estimated to number between 300,000 and 500,000.
Bangladeshi migrants in Malaysia contribute significantly to the economies of both countries. In 2023, they remitted about USD 2.5 billion to Bangladesh, accounting for 12% of the total remittances received by the country. They also fill the labour gaps in Malaysia, where locals are reluctant to take up low-paying and hazardous jobs. However, Bangladeshi migrants also face many challenges and risks in their migration journey, such as high recruitment costs, fraudulent practices, exploitation, abuse, discrimination, detention and deportation.
Why Bangladeshi Migrants in Malaysia Suffer?
One of the main reasons why many Bangladeshi migrants end up in irregular situations in Malaysia is the high and unregulated cost of migration. According to a study by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the average cost of migration from Bangladesh to Malaysia was USD 4,600 in 2017, which was equivalent to 18 months of wages in Malaysia.
Many migrants have to borrow money from informal sources at high interest rates, sell their assets or mortgage their lands to finance their migration. This puts them in debt bondage and makes them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse by their employers, agents and middlemen.
Another reason is the lack of transparency and accountability in the recruitment process of migrant workers. Despite the existence of bilateral agreements and memoranda of understanding (MoUs) between Bangladesh and Malaysia, the recruitment system is plagued by corruption, fraud and monopoly.
For instance, in 2016, the two countries signed an MoU to recruit 1.5 million Bangladeshi workers through a government-to-government (G2G) mechanism, which was supposed to reduce the cost and time of migration. However, the MoU was suspended in 2018 after allegations of irregularities and malpractices by a syndicate of 10 Bangladeshi and 730 Malaysian agencies, who reportedly charged exorbitant fees from the migrants and manipulated the online registration system.
A third reason is the lack of protection and support for migrant workers in Malaysia, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic. Malaysia does not have a comprehensive legal framework or policy to protect the rights and welfare of migrant workers, who are often treated as second-class citizens and scapegoats for social and economic problems.
During the pandemic, the government imposed strict movement restrictions and conducted immigration raids to detain and deport undocumented migrants, without providing adequate health care, testing or quarantine facilities. Many migrant workers have also lost their jobs, incomes and legal status due to the lockdowns and business closures, but have not received any financial assistance or relief from the government or their employers.
What Can be Done to Improve the Situation
To address the challenges and risks faced by Bangladeshi migrants in Malaysia, both countries need to take concrete and coordinated actions at different stages of the migration cycle. Some of the possible steps are:
Bangladesh and Malaysia should review and revise their existing bilateral agreements and MoUs to ensure that they are transparent, fair and effective in regulating the recruitment and employment of migrant workers. They should also strengthen their monitoring and enforcement mechanisms to prevent and punish any violations or malpractices by the recruitment agencies, employers or officials involved in the migration process. Moreover, they should provide adequate information, orientation and training to the prospective migrants on their rights, responsibilities and risks in Malaysia.
Malaysia should adopt a human rights-based and public health-oriented approach to managing migration. It should refrain from conducting immigration raids, detentions and deportations, and instead provide access to health care, testing and support facilities for all migrants, regardless of their legal status. It should also ensure that migrant workers are paid their wages and benefits, and are protected from exploitation, abuse and discrimination in their workplaces and communities. Furthermore, it should facilitate the regularization of undocumented migrants and the renewal of expired work permits, and provide avenues for migrants to change employers or sectors if they wish to do so.
Bangladesh and Malaysia should cooperate to ensure the safe and dignified return and reintegration of migrant workers who want to or have to go back to their home country. They should provide assistance in terms of repatriation, transportation, health screening, residency, counselling and livelihood support. They should also establish mechanisms to address any grievances or disputes that the returnees may have with their employers or agents in Malaysia, such as unpaid wages, compensation or legal claims.
Bangladesh and Malaysia should enhance their dialogue and partnership on migration issues, and engage with other stakeholders such as civil society, trade unions, employers’ associations, international organisations and other migrant-sending and receiving countries. They should also participate in regional and global forums and initiatives on migration governance, such as the ASEAN Forum on Migrant Labour, the Colombo Process, the Abu Dhabi Dialogue and the Global Compact for Migration. By doing so, they can share their experiences, challenges and best practices, and seek to harmonise their policies, standards and cooperation on migration matters.
The recent detention of 94 illegal Bangladeshi migrants in Malaysia is a reminder of the precarious situation of many migrant workers in the country, who contribute to the development of both countries but face various challenges and risks in their migration journey.
To improve the situation of Bangladeshi migrants in Malaysia, both countries need to take concrete and coordinated actions at different stages of the migration cycle, and enhance their dialogue and partnership on migration issues. By doing so, they can ensure that migration is safe, orderly and beneficial for all.