Undocumented migrant workers seem to be the favourite whipping boys of the Malaysian public and law enforcement agencies on every issue from the rising crime rate, the high unemployment rates among local youth and now even environmental degradation and anthropogenic hazards such as that occurring in Cameron Highlands.
We find it comforting to believe that our fellow citizens are incapable of reckless profiteering and corruption, and that we are all united against the common enemy of "illegal immigrants".
Despite popular belief, most undocumented migrant workers in Malaysia are not undocumented by choice or because they are recalcitrant or unwilling to obtain proper documentation and permits. Many end up undocumented because they were tricked by unscrupulous agents, traffickers and employers.
Their lack of formal education and disenfranchisement means many of them never seek legal redress and do not have the option of returning to their home countries even if they wanted to.
Almost all migrant workers were brought into Malaysia to work in 3D, i.e. Dirty, Dangerous and Difficult, jobs, particularly in the construction and plantation sectors, which locals are not willing to take up.
The general belief that the Malaysian public and security forces are 'too soft' on undocumented migrants is way off the mark.
Malaysia's disproportionately harsh treatment of undocumented migrants, which includes flogging and detention without trial under the Immigration Act 1959/1963, as well as poor detention conditions which leave detainees susceptible to communicable diseases, sexual and gender-based violence and other forms of harm, is a matter of grave concern and has been documented by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Suhakam, among others.
Further, Malaysia does not distinguish between refugees and undocumented migrants, and routinely subject all undocumented migrants, including refugees, to arbitrary arrest, detention and physical punishment. Many undocumented migrants and refugees report of extortion, beatings and other harm in the hands of the Malaysian security forces, paramilitary volunteer corps and employers.
Far from being a haven for illegal immigrants, Malaysia is actually ranked one of the worst places for migrant workers to work in by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) due to the lack of rights and protection for migrant workers, whether legal or undocumented.
The recent deaths of three Bangladeshi workers in the MRT construction accident highlight the dangers that migrant workers face in their daily work due to the lack of legal protection and occupational health and safety measures.
The reasons why migrant workers continue to flock to Malaysia in search of jobs are grinding poverty, lack of economic opportunities, civil or political strife, and persecution in their home countries, as well as the untruthful promise of lucrative jobs by agents and employers who go to rural villages to lure young men to work abroad. Governmental corruption and lax border security make it easy for undocumented migrants to enter and remain in Malaysia, despite the threats to their lives, safety and freedom.
No rational person would actually believe that undocumented migrant workers in the agriculture sector are the cause of the illegal land clearing activities in Cameron Highlands. Farm owners prefer to hire migrant workers because they are willing to work long hours for pittance, without benefits and often without protective gear.
It is ridiculous to think that the undocumented migrant farm workers are the ones with the prerogative and leverage to order the illegal clearing of land. Migrant farm workers merely follow the instructions of their employers and do not stand to gain economically or in any other way from clearing land that they are not hired or ordered to clear.
The environmental crisis in Cameron Highlands is nothing new, nor did it only begin with the arrival of undocumented migrant workers. Every few years, there will be reports of water pollution, use of banned pesticides and herbicides and rampant land clearing in Cameron Highlands, all stemming from the lack of monitoring and enforcement.
The problems of landslides, pollution, lower agricultural yield and higher temperatures in Cameron Highlands are not going to go away with the arrest of migrant workers.
As long as the authorities are unwilling to monitor and enforce laws against the farms, as long as consumers are willing to settle for cheaper produce with a high pesticide residue load, as long as farm owners are not made responsible for the environmental health and safety of their farms, farm products and areas surrounding their farms, there can be no resolution to the problems plaguing Cameron Highlands.
As conscientious citizens, we need to take a long, hard look at ourselves, acknowledge our roles in the damage we've caused to the environment and the human rights abuses we've inflicted on migrant workers, assume responsibility and make reparations to finally put things right.