Thousands of Indonesian and Filipino Migrant Workers in Sabah, Malaysia Continue to be Arrested Despite the Pandemic

by | Aug 30, 2021 | Solidarity

Photo: View on border area between Sebatik island and Nunukan island in North Kalimantan. Documentation: TPOLS (2020)

Press Statement

30 August 2021

In Sabah, Malaysia, thousands of migrant workers and their families continued to live in fear of raids. They hide in the oil palm plantation over the night to avoid the raid. 

 We investigated the situation of migrant workers in Sabah and interviewed a number of migrant workers throughout August 2021 regarding various arrest operations and Covid-19 clusters at several immigration detention centres in Sabah.

 On 4 and 5 August 2021, the Immigration Department of Malaysia (JIM) in Sabah conducted an operation to arrest migrant workers in two different locations in the middle of the night. During the operation, 155 migrant workers and their families were arrested, 67 of whom were women and 39 children. These operations are just examples of the wave of raids against undocumented migrants that have taken place since the beginning of the pandemic. Thousands of Indonesian and Filipino migrants have been arrested in large-scale immigration operations in Sabah, Malaysia. In 2020 alone, 12,800 undocumented migrants were arrested and detained in overcrowded immigration detention centres. In all these arrest operations, the Sabah authorities have deployed 3,493 officers, 10 ships and 54 small boats.

 In fact, during the two years of the pandemic, even thousands of documented migrant workers have been forced to become undocumented. This is because they are not able to renew their work permits due to immigration offices being temporarily closed during the pandemic. However, JIM Sabah is increasingly taking up various arrest operations. They argue that the arrest of thousands of undocumented migrant workers is one of the necessary responses to control the transmission of Covid-19. 

 Based on the report of the Fact-Checking Team of the Sovereign Migrant Workers (KBMB) regarding the condition of deported Indonesian migrant workers amid the Covid-19 pandemic from Sabah to Indonesia, they live in an overcrowded detention centre which puts them at a high risk of contracting the virus. Consequently, they do not only suffer physically but also mentally. This condition gets worse as the detention centre does not provide an inclusive or women-friendly facility. 

 A woman deported migrant worker says:

“When the detention centres are contracting Covid-19, we are sprayed with disinfectant every day. All over our bodies are wet from a high-pressure disinfectant spray. We are not allowed to change our clothes, we should keep wearing them until they dry. They said it’s to kill the bacteria. Yet it left us dizzy.”  

 Based on our investigations, various arrest operations only made conditions in immigration detention centres worse and overcrowded.

 “If we are raided, where will we be thrown? In a pandemic situation like this it makes no sense to arrest migrant workers. It’s utterly difficult to understand. We have to keep our distance, while the detention centres are overcrowded. It’s completely unreasonable.”(Ergusem, Migrant Workers in Oil Palm Plantation in Sabah, 10 August 2021).

 “We are still working as usual, but at night we have to hide. We continue to work, but the raid continues as well. If we get caught, who would be able to work in this oil palm plantation? The company will definitely collapse.” (Thomas, Migrant Workers in Oil Palm Plantation in Sabah, 10 August 2021).

 In reality, these various arrest operations have not been able to reduce the number of Covid-19 transmission cases. The daily number of cases continued to rise until this petition was written. Instead, various clusters of Covid-19 transmission have emerged in different immigration detention centres. From the data we collected through Newslab, as of 10 August 2021 there have been at least 14 Covid transmission clusters taken place in temporary detention centres in Sabah, with 6,518 confirmed cases, 1,431 of which are still being treated. The more frequent the immigration raids have taken up against the migrants, the more clusters of Covid transmission at temporary detention centres will be. This fact has been shown repeatedly in Sabah and it could backfire the effort to control the spread of Covid-19.

JIM Sabah must immediately stop all operations to arrest undocumented migrants. In this pandemic situation, arresting migrants and their children, the elderly, and women and detaining them in overcrowded temporary detention centres is a heinous act, demeaning to humanity, and an attack on marginalized people that need help the most during the pandemic. 

Migrant workers and their families who have lived for generations have an invaluable contribution to the Sabah economy. It is through their sweat and blood that 1.5 million hectares of oil palm plantations in Sabah have been able to continue to operate. During this difficult time, they should receive equal treatment, support, protection, and health services as other citizens do, rather than become targets of arrest and detention. 

Based on this situation, we urge the Sabah authorities to immediately:

  1.   Stop all forms of arrest against undocumented migrants, including children, women, and the elderly;
  2.   Accelerate and expand the implementation of vaccinations for migrants without administrative requirements and immigration documents;
  3.   Speed up the deportation process to prevent overcrowded detention centres and cramped conditions for detained migrants;
  4.   Provide immigration services that are more accessible, affordable, fast, and safe for migrant workers;
  5.   Implement an amnesty/remission program for undocumented migrant workers, including adopting a federal recalibration program;
  6.   Prioritise the responsibility to respect, fulfil, protect the human rights of the migrant workers including their health rights, over the repressive approach



  • More detailed information (in Indonesian) is available here.
  • Voices of migrants’ testimonies: 

Sign the petition to protest Immigration Raids against Migrant Workers in Sabah, Malaysia


Makassar, 30 August 2021

KBMB/Sovereign Migrant Workers Coalition, Indonesia

Borneo Komrad, Sabah, Malaysia

North-South Initiative, Malaysia

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