RANGOON—A group of 170 Burmese migrant workers returned from Malaysia on Friday with the help of a Buddhist monk, who funded their flight home.
Naypyidaw is cooperating with the Kuala Lumpur government during an ongoing crackdown on unregistered migrants in Malaysia, which has resulted in the arrest and detention of several thousand foreign workers in recent weeks.
The repatriation of Burmese workers was funded by well-known monk Sitagu Sayardaw. He received a donation of US$120,000 recently and spent a third of these funds on the repatriation of the 170 workers on Friday, a representative of Sitagu Sayardaw said, adding that the remaining $80,000 would be used to repatriate more workers.
The migrants flew back to Rangoon on Friday on a flight arranged by Myanmar Airways.
In recent months, the airliner and Kanbawza Bank paid $150,000 to help fly several hundred workers home, after deadly clashes reportedly broke out between Burmese Muslims and Buddhists migrants working in Malaysia. The unrest was a spillover of the inter-communal violence that has affected Burma since March.
Burmese migrants who returned on Friday said they had chosen to voluntarily leave Malaysia because they feared arrest by authorities. They said this year’s crackdown was particularly thorough and unregistered migrants were constantly concerned about being apprehended.
“Working in Malaysia is not so bad, but I don’t want to go back there since I’m really upset about this latest crackdown,” said Thazin Aye, who worked abroad for about six years.
“I called the Capone [Malaysia-Myanmar Free Funeral Service] society in Malaysia and asked for help to return to my country as soon as I heard about the arrests,” she said during an interview at Rangoon International Airport.
AungMyat, who worked at a photo camera factory in Kuala Lumpur, said many migrants tried to cross into Thailand and wait there until Malaysian authorities end their operations.
He said, “Although most Burmese workers planned to run to the [Thai] border after they heard about the crackdown, this did not work because Malaysian officials closed the border.”
Malaysian authorities began operations in early September and are reportedly targeting about 400,000 unregistered migrant workers.
Malaysia employs millions of low-wage migrant workers from poor countries across the region, including up to half a million Burmese migrant workers. Many workers entered Malaysia illegally in search of work and have little legal recourse once apprehended by authorities, according human rights groups.
Most migrant workers who returned Friday said they received help from Burmese civil society organizations in Malaysia, but not from the Burma Embassy.
Burma’s Labor Minister Aye Myint visited Kuala Lumpur early last week to discuss the expulsion of unregistered Burmese workers with the Malaysian government.
Upon his return Thursday, he said that unregistered workers would be allowed to come back to Burma without facing fines, even if they had left the country by crossing the border illegally.
He said the Burmese Embassy and Immigration Department would work with Malaysian authorities to verify whether or not arrested migrants were Burmese nationals.
According to Aye Myint, about 250,000 Burmese nationals work in Malaysia, more than 110,000 of who are without proper legal documentation. Some 8,000 Burmese in Malaysia are holding UN refugee status.
A spokesperson for the Migrant Workers Rights Network, which helps Burmese working in Thailand, said that after many years of neglect Burma’s government was now slowly improving its assistance to overseas workers.
“The help of government for Burmese migrant workers was really weak in past. But now I think there are many indications that things are improving,” he said, adding that private firms were stepping in to support the repatriation of migrants as the government could not afford to do so.