We must take more drastic measures to get them out, says home affairs minister When Malaysians abandoned Kuala Lumpur for their villages during the Muslim Ramadan and Hindu Deepavali festivals this month, they were shocked to watch television as thousands of illegal immigrant workers frolicked at their favourite city haunts. 'They are still here,' announced one newscaster with leading broadcaster TV3. The television footage was testimony to the fact that most of an estimated 1.5 million illegal foreign workers had not taken advantage of a general amnesty allowing them to leave the country before a crackdown. The television station interviewed Malaysian passers-by who expressed shock at the failure of the workers to take advantage of the amnesty. 'They have taken over our city ... so many of them are a threat and a menace,' one Malaysian said. 'I dare not go near them.' The government had warned the illegal workers, mostly from Indonesia, India and Bangladesh, to leave the country before November 14 or face arrest, jail and whipping. Most immigrant workers have chosen to stay and risk punishment, in contrast to a 2002 amnesty offer that saw hundreds of thousands leave the country ahead of the deadline. Home Affairs Minister Azmi Khalid yesterday told parliament that only 105,000 of the estimated 1.5 million illegal workers had left during the amnesty. He said he would extend it to December 31. 'We have to take more drastic measures to get them out and keep them out,' he said. The expulsion order does not involve about 1 million foreigners who work in Malaysia legally. Labour experts said most illegal immigrant workers preferred to face the risk of jail and a whipping, which can leave permanent scars, to the unemployment and poverty that awaited them at home. 'They are also wiser, street smart and have learned the local language and feel confident they can get by despite the risk,' a trade union official said. He said employers also had conspired to prevent workers from leaving by not paying their wages, and some had even offered higher wages to dissuade illegal workers from leaving. 'They make a tidy profit from hiring cheap foreign workers and are unwilling to let the workers leave,' he said. The union official urged the government to enforce a law passed in 2002 that punishes bosses who hire foreign workers illegally with jail and whipping. Not one employer has been jailed to date. The government is under public pressure to rid the country of illegal foreign workers, who have been blamed for a sharp rise in violent crime, including rape and robbery. 'We are uncomfortable with so many illegal foreign workers among us,' Mr Azmi said, adding the government would launch a massive operation in January to arrest illegal workers. The government also wants to stem a huge annual cash outflow, estimated at M$11.3 billion ($23 billion) last year, in remittances. The government is mobilising and empowering about 300,000 civil defence volunteers to assist police to search premises and arrest foreigners. They even plan to offer M$50 as reward for each worker arrested, a scheme denounced by human-rights activists as modern-day bounty hunting. Legal workers will be issued with a new chip-based identity card that allows easy identification and control of movement. 'Next year any foreign worker without the new identity card will be jailed and whipped,' Mr Azmi said. 'It is best to leave now.' But the trade union official said it was easy for deported workers to bribe their way back into the country given the endemic corruption. 'They are attracted by the plentiful jobs, the proximity and similarities in culture, language and religion,' the official said.