Scammers target illegal workers ahead of their forced departure

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 October, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 28 October, 2004, 12:00am

Like sharks feeding on schools of fish, con artists are preying on thousands of undocumented foreign workers who are trying to beat an amnesty to leave the country or face jail and a whipping.

The most active of the con men are the calo, Indonesian for phantom agent, who target the relatively cash-rich, but vulnerable Indonesian workers bent on leaving the country to avoid arrest before the amnesty expires at the end of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month.

The calos are usually sharply dressed Indonesians who wear dark sunglasses and brazenly offer their bait - bogus air and ferry tickets - to foreign workers as they enter or leave their embassies.

Since the amnesty was announced last week, thousands of panicked Indonesian, Indian and Bangladeshi workers have been gathering daily at their embassies for one-way travel passes without which they cannot leave.

The sudden rush to get the passes has overwhelmed embassy officials.

'We can daily issue about 4,000 single-journey travel papers but there are over 10,000 applicants a day,' one Indonesian embassy official said. 'We have our hands too full to worry about the calos.'

Indonesian workers have the option of boarding one of several naval vessels that Malaysia and Indonesia are putting into service to transport them home.

But without air tickets, securing passage for the journey home for nationals of India and Bangladesh remains a challenge.

Indian embassy officials have appealed for police help to arrest the bogus travel agents while warning Indians not to buy their tickets.

But, according to Bangladeshi Jaafar Hussein, such warnings are of little practical help.

'The airlines said tickets were sold out last week and these agents are still selling tickets to Dhaka, but for twice the normal price,' Mr Hussein said.

He said that he dared not buy for fear the ticket might turn out to be a fake, but neither does he want to be stranded when the amnesty expires.

'We don't want to be jailed and whipped,' he said.

Irene Fernandez, director of a group that helps migrant workers, said many were becoming desperate and described the atmosphere as 'mass madness'.

'It is difficult for about 1.5 million workers to all pack up and leave together within two weeks,' she said.

The government has, meanwhile, intervened to ask the various airlines to add more flights, but it is sticking to its deadline.