The government's decision to let illegal migrants leave Malaysia upon payment of a fine, rather than jailing and caning them before they are deported, will benefit some 1 million illegal workers in the country. Under the policy change, announced on Thursday, illegal immigrants who show up at the immigration office with an air ticket can leave immediately upon payment of a fine. The level of the fine has not been fixed yet but it is expected to be much lower then the maximum fine of M$3,000 (HK$6,900) which can be imposed for overstaying a visa. For many illegal migrant workers, such as Nepali Ram Bahadur, 29, the reprieve is welcome news. 'I entered the country as a tourist and overstayed for 19 months, 'I am happy I can go home after paying a fine,' he said. 'I don't have to go to jail or be caned,' said Ram Bahadur, who works in a restaurant in Brickfields, a suburb of the capital, Kuala Lumpur. An estimated 1 million illegal migrants, mostly from Indonesia, Bangladesh, China, Nepal and India, are eligible for the reprieve. They either entered the country illegally or obtained tourist visas but stayed to work illegally. Most are employed in construction, farming and services. Most Indonesian illegal migrants are ferried in small boats across the Straits of Malacca from Sumatra. Others fly in as bona fide tourists and get a 30-day visa-free stay. Some stay for five years. 'If they step forward and own up to us and pay the fine they can leave immediately,' Ishak Mohamed, head of enforcement for the Immigration Department, said. 'Why spend time in a jail?' he said. 'We save a lot of money by letting them leave instead of jailing them and paying for their upkeep.' Overstaying and working illegally are punishable with a fine, six months in jail and five strokes of the cane. But prosecuting illegal migrants has its setbacks. Half the country's 59,000 prison inmates are migrants jailed for working illegally. 'It is impossible to catch, prosecute and jail every undocumented [illegal] migrant worker. It is cheap to let them go with a fine,' said Adele Fernandez, leader of an NGO which works to protect migrant workers from official abuse. The growing calls from the public to 'get rid' of the illegal immigrants is believed to be another reason behind the decision to let them leave. 'With a general election around the corner, the government is under pressure to act against illegal immigrants,' said opposition leader Lim Guan Eng, who called for 'a comprehensive migrant labour policy that is fair to the migrants, employers and the local population'.