- The Washington Times - Friday, October 4, 2002

SURABAYA, Indonesia In the waning moments of sunlight, as the cries of imams float over this sprawling seaport, Thomas Lodo, 46, absorbed in his own problems, does not hear.

"I want to go home," he murmurs, his soft, hollow eyes falling onto the dusty lot of the Margorejo Denah Asrama transit housing complex, where barefoot boys are churning up little white storms of dust as they chase a soccer ball. "But I'm ashamed to go home."

Mr. Lodo is ashamed because he has no money authorities confiscated the little he had. He is also ashamed because home is Flores, in Nusa Tengarra, one of Indonesia's poorest regions, which he left last year to work as an illegal construction worker in Malaysia. His hope, stymied now, was to raise money for his wife and three sons two of whom he has been struggling to put through college.

Mr. Lodo is one of an estimated 400,000 illegal migrants now returning to Indonesia, a country whose economy is stagnant, has 40 million unemployed and a minimum wage of around $35 per month.

A new labor law took effect in Malaysia Aug. 1 that illegal entrants to the country face six months in jail and caning with a rattan. It is estimated that the mass exodus of illegal workers from Malaysia will boost Indonesia's 25 percent unemployment rate by 1 percent. Specialists expect social turmoil will result.

"We need to keep in mind what Indonesia is up against right now," said Umar Juoro, a Jakarta-based political analyst. He cited Indonesia's rising sectarian conflict, greater friction between labor unions and employers, and growing mistrust of the political elite.

The return migration doesn't help.

"We shouldn't overreact," Mr. Juoro added, "but many of these workers are young and restless the same kind of people that started other conflicts still going on. We should not ignore the potential."

The Indonesian government has seemed slow to respond. Offering few details, President Megawati Sukarnoputri told reporters recently that a task force had been set up to handle the situation.

But here in Surabaya and in Nusa Tenggara, where more than half the illegal migrants are expected to return, authorities had not heard about a task force.

"So far, the central government has just helped in transporting them back," said Sutanto who, like many Indonesians, has only one name chief of the Labor and Migration Department on the island of Lombok, West Nusa Tenggara. "We are waiting for instructions."

Some analysts fear red herrings are being served.

"Since she became president [in July 2001], Megawati has consistently mishandled or ignored big crises," Mr. Juoro said. "She has neglected the poor people of Indonesia her strongest supporters."

By mid-August, finger-pointing had begun. House representatives were accusing various ministries of mishandling the crisis, and the ministries were passing responsibility on to other ministries.

"This department's job is only to transfer these people home," Sugianto, an official with the Ministry of Manpower and Transmigration, said as he signed out illegal migrants awaiting departure at Surabaya's port.

While the Indonesian government sorts out who should do what, it has urged the Malaysian government to allow the migrants another month to leave the country.

But Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad was unreceptive to the idea when he and Mrs. Megawati met in Bali seven weeks ago.

Mr. Mahathir has not given a reason for his draconian mandate. Some analysts suspect recent riots in Malaysia, some of which involved Indonesian workers, provoked him. Others think he is pandering to the Indian and Chinese minorities in Malaysia.

Mr. Mahathir also failed to deal with reported abuses by Malaysian authorities in their handling of the illegal migrants, most of whom were employed at construction sites and palm plantations.

Many of the migrants are being held over in seaport towns like this one, without shoes, without money, without personal belongings without anything other than the shirts and pants they are wearing.

Mr. Lodo says he and a friend were walking along the roadside when authorities picked him up; he was handcuffed and detained for 40 days without explanation.

"The Malaysian government didn't tell me what was happening, and they took everything I have," Mr. Lodo said, including more than $500 he had saved during his six months in Malaysia. He said he earned 2.5 million rupiah ($270) a month there, four times what he made in Flores as a coffee farmer on his own small plot of land.

Indonesian workers started arriving in Malaysia in 1970. There have been periodic crackdowns since, but none has been as large-scale or strict as this year's. An estimated 3 million Indonesians legal and illegal are working in Malaysia.

Many returning migrants say they have been dissuaded by the new labor law. They will try to re-enter Malaysia legally or stay home.

"Maybe I'll sell the land," Mr. Lodo said, thinking of how to hold on to his dream to put his children through college. "We need the house, but I'll sell the land."

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