By Andrew Loh
In the aftermath of the Little India riot which took place on 8 December, it was disclosed that some 13,000 foreigners were repatriated annually for each of the last 3 years.
That’s an average of 1,083 cases each month.
Whether the figure is an alarming one is unclear, since there doesn’t seem to be any previous figures made public to compare with.
In defending the government from criticisms of its deportation of 53 migrant workers who were allegedly involved in the Little India riot, Law Minister K Shanmugam said on 18 December that repatriation happens on a regular basis. [See here.]
While repatriation may indeed happen on a “regular basis”, it nonetheless raises questions of the circumstances of these repatriations, especially those involving the lower-skilled, lower-wage migrant workers.
There have been cases documented by migrant workers non-governmental organisations (NGOs) where workers are seemingly repatriated on the whims and fancies of their employers. While the Acting Minister for Manpower claimed in 2011 that “MOM had responded to two such cases [in 2010] and we had no reported cases this year”, one wonders how a worker who is being held captive by repatriation companies in unknown locations without access to anyone would be able to inform MOM of his situation.
The minister also said then, “We have also given HOME/ TWC2 the contact numbers of our staff, so that MOM could go down and help the workers, if they were being illegally confined.”
It is interesting to note that the minister referred to NGOs, instead of its own departments which should be handling such matters.
He also said, “Foreign workers who complain of abuses or salary arrears to Customs officers at immigration check-points are immediately directed to MOM for assistance.”
The fact of the matter is how would a foreign worker have the wherewithal to approach the immigration officers, given that the repatriation company personnel would also be present and would undoubtedly be keeping the worker under close watch?
As one who has been involved in migrant workers work for almost a decade now, Mr Jolovan Wham is familiar with how repatriation companies work.
“The political will to close them down is weak because the authorities are convinced that repatriation companies play a useful social control function,” Mr Wham wrote in 2011, in response to the Acting Manpower Minister’s remarks. “It is easy for politicians and bureaucrats to turn a blind eye to this because for every foreign worker who has to suffer the indignity of being captured, confined and forcefully repatriated, for every foreign worker whose dream of a better life is shattered, there are a thousand more waiting in line for an opportunity to work here.”
Mr Wham also wrote an expose on these repatriation companies which sometimes operate in gangster-like fashion. (See here: TOC Expose: Repatriation companies.)
So, while we may say that repatriation happens on a regular basis, the question is what recourse do workers have if they feel they are wrongfully being deported? While some have argued that the government has the legal authority to exercise its administrative powers to deport, and that even those who have been acquitted by the courts of any wrongdoing can similarly be deported, it nonetheless would be good for us to see if there is not a better way than to unilaterally deport workers without giving them an avenue of appeal.
The government had cited the examples of countries such as the United Kingdom which also gives the minister powers to deport or repatriate any undesirable immigrant or foreigner. But the UK also allows such a person to appeal the minister’s decision – either when the worker is still within the UK or when he has been deported to his home country.
From the UK Home Office website:
“A deportation order may not be made while it is still open to the person to appeal against the Secretary of State’s decision, or while an appeal is pending except where the Secretary of State is required to make the deportation order in respect of a foreign criminal under section 32(5) of the UK Borders Act 2007. There is no appeal within the immigration appeal system against the making of a deportation order on the recommendation of a court; but there is a right of appeal to a higher court against the recommendation itself. A deportation order may not be made while it is still open to the person to appeal against the relevant conviction, sentence or recommendation, or while such an appeal is pending.”
And from this website:
“As the individual will ordinarily have been removed pursuant to the order, applications to revoke a deportation order will usually be made from outside the UK, and the right of appeal against a refusal to revoke can ordinarily only be brought from overseas.”
In fact, Singapore’s own Immigration Act allows some form of appeal:
“Any person in respect of whom an order of removal has been made under subsection (1) may appeal to the Minister in such manner and within such time as may be prescribed.”
Yet, the government says it would be too onerous – in terms of time and costs – to allow such a process.
There are also those who advised that Singaporeans give the government what would amount to unfettered and unquestioned authority to act in these matters because this is a “government we elected.”
That is a thoroughly false – and dangerous – argument.
For one, electing a government does not mean citizens have given it a blank cheque. Second, it has been proved that the said government has erred – not only in recent times but have always erred in some ways over the last 50 years. Indeed, the current unhappiness over the import of 2 million foreigners, for example, is one example of how faulty policies have contributed to a not insignificant negative strain on all aspects of life in Singapore.
To then argue that such a government should be given unfettered trust and authority to act – in any matter – is highly misguided.
Blind trust or blind faith, as the defenders of the government advocate, is ill-advised.
What we should be looking at is whether there is a third way of doing things – instead of the current imbalance of power between the state and the individual.
For example, could we install a tribunal for such cases to be heard? A tribunal could expedite such hearings, and save time and costs, and at the same time ensure that aggrieved workers are given an avenue to be heard.
Are there good reasons not to have this?
13,000 repatriated is not an insignificant number, one would think. Instead of citing this figure to justify the deportation of foreigners, it should instead raise more questions of why so many are being deported every year, and whether there should be avenues for them to appeal.
And again: should the government circumvent a court’s acquittal of an accused and deport him anyway?