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International Migration Statistics and Data Sources
Definitions and Categories of International Migrants
Data on International Migration to Malaysia
The Department of Immigration gathers data on international migrants to Malaysia based on the type
of visa or work permit issued to foreigners. Data on the following categories of migrants are generated
by the Department of Immigration:
II. Foreign skilled workers
III. Foreign unskilled and semi-skilled workers
IV. Foreign students
V. Foreigners under the “Malaysia My Second Home Programme.”
I. Expatriates include all professional and technical migrant workers who earn a monthly salary of
not less than RM3,000. The expatriate is issued an Employment Pass if the employment contract is at
least two years. The number of expatriate positions approved in 2006 was 19,444; it was 19,752 in
2005. The total number of expatriates was 43,548 in 2005 and 32,609 in 2006.
In 2006, the top five sending countries of expatriates included India (28.2 percent), Japan (14.8
percent), China (15.1 percent), United Kingdom (8.6 percent) and Singapore (6.7 percent).
Expatriates are allowed to bring in their dependents. The spouse and children of expatriates are
issued the Dependence Pass, while the others accompanying the expatriate such as parents or in-laws
are issued the Social Visit Pass. In 2006, there were 14,895 with Dependents Pass and 2,497 with
Social Visit Pass.
II. Foreign skilled workers include all professional and technical migrant workers on short-term
contracts of less than a year, and they are issued the Visit Pass for Professional Employment. In 2006,
there were a total of 22,940 professional and technical migrants on short-term contracts.
III. Unskilled and semi-skilled workers constitute the largest component of migrants in Malaysia.
These short-term contract migrant workers are commonly termed migrant workers in Malaysia and
they are issued the Visit Pass for Temporary Employment (VPTE). Migrant workers are issued with
the VPTE, initially for 3 years, and can be extended to another two (1+1) years. The work permit,
however, has to be renewed annually.
Before applying for the employment pass, one has to apply for the position from the Expatriate Committee.
These workers are only allowed to work in selected sectors and occupations, and can only be
sourced from selected countries. They are not allowed to bring in their dependents.
As of 2006, there were 1,869,209 unskilled and semi-skilled workers from 23 countries. The
top five sending countries included Indonesia (62.8 percent), Nepal (11.4 percent), India (7.4 percent),
Myanmar (5.8 percent) and Viet Nam (5.7 percent).
IV. Foreign students are mostly enrolled in tertiary institutions. In 2006, there were 55,912 foreign
students. The top three sending countries included Indonesia (17.4 percent), China (14.5 percent) and
Bangladesh (14.0 percent).
V. Foreigners under the Malaysia My Second Home Programme are allowed to stay in Malaysia
for as long as possible on the Social Visit Pass with a multiple entry visa. Those who are eligible are
issued the Social Visit Pass, initially for a period of 10 years (depending on the validity of the
applicant’s passport), and it is renewable. In 2006, there were 1,728 migrants under this Programme.
Of all the categories of migrants listed above, the unskilled and semi-skilled contract migrant
workers constitute the largest component of migrants, and thus they pose the greatest challenge to
managing international migration in Malaysia.
Data on International Migration from Malaysia
Though Malaysia is both a sending and receiving country, Malaysia does not track statistics on the
long-term outflows of migrants from Malaysia.
Out-migrants are mostly skilled technicians and professionals. Those who left the country in
the early 1960s to the early-1990s migrated both for work and long-term settlement, but recent trends
suggest emigrants are mostly temporary or circular migrants in search of better opportunities in an
increasingly globalized labor market for highly-skilled workers.
The traditional destinations for Malaysian professionals include the Anglo-Saxon nations
(United States, Britain, Australia, Canada and New Zealand) and Singapore, and to a lesser extent
Hong Kong, China. While these nations still remain the favored destinations for Malaysians, now
many migrate to countries in Asia and even Africa, in search of better job opportunities, including
managing Malaysia’s rising overseas investments.
Singapore absorbs the largest number of Malaysians, though exact figures are not available.
Singapore is a unique case, with close historical ties between British Malaya and Singapore. It was
then part of the Federation of Malaysia during 1963-65, when it became a separate sovereign state on
9 August 1965. Economic, social and family ties between Malaysia and Singapore remain close and
explain the high volume of people movement across the border
At present (as of November 2007), employers are allowed to recruit migrant workers from 12 countries, i.e., Indonesia,
Thailand, Cambodia, Nepal, Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam, Philippines, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and India).
There are no official figures on the number of Malaysian students studying abroad, some of
whom may opt to seek employment overseas.
Occasionally, the government releases data on Malaysians who had surrendered their
Malaysian citizenship. According to the Ministry of Home Affairs, a total of 106,000 Malaysians had
renounced their citizenship since Independence in 1957 (Malaysiakini, 21 November 2007) .
International Migrants Left Out in Government Statistics
Refugees are currently not included in the statistics on migrants compiled by the Departments of
Immigration and the Department of Statistics. There are refugees in Malaysia, mainly from Myanmar
(predominantly Rohingyas), Indonesia (from the Province of Aceh) and Thailand (from Southern
Malaysia is not a signatory to the United Nations Convention on Refugee Status (1951) and the
New York Protocol (1967), and therefore, it merely provides temporary shelter to refugees on
humanitarian grounds. From 2003 to May 2007, Malaysia had 28,668 foreigners from 12 countries,
mainly from Myanmar, Indonesia and Thailand, who were granted temporary protection or had special
passes issued by United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) (The Star, 25 October
In addition, there is an estimated 68,000 Filipinos from the Mindanao region in Southern
Philippines who sought refuge in Sabah in the early 1970s to escape civil war. They were allowed to
stay on humanitarian grounds, and were later resettled in various parts of Sabah with financial
assistance from the UNHCR. These refugees are issued with IMM13 identification document that is
renewed annually for a fee of RM90. The children below 12 years are included in the registration card
of either one parent. These refugees are classified as irregular if they fail to renew the IMM13 card.
A total of 61,314 Filipino refugees were given the IMM13 identification document, and of these an
estimated 55,000 are still in the state. According to the Philippine government, “slightly over 100,000
“ known descendants, spanning at least three generations, of the original batch of refugees are living in
Sabah ( The Sunday Star, 18 November 2007).
International Migration Data from the Census
Apart from the statistics compiled by the Department of Immigration, the annual statistics on the
population of Malaysia generated by the Department of Statistics gives mid-year population estimates
on Malaysian citizens and non-Malaysian citizens.
The estimate of non-Malaysian citizens is based on the Population and Housing Census of
Malaysia, usually carried out every ten years.
This discussion is based on the author’s previous writings. See High-Skilled versus Low Skilled Migration: Managing a
Complex Policy Agenda—East Asian Development Network (EADN) funded research project on Cross-Border Labour
Flows in East Asis, November 2003-October 2004 (forthcoming publication with ISEAS Singapore).
The last Census was in 2000, and apart from Malaysians who were usually residing in
Malaysia, it also captured information on foreigners, provided they had stayed or intended to stay for
six months or more in Malaysia in the year 2000. Information on the following categories of foreigners
1. Persons commuting across the Malaysian border (e.g., Singapore and Thailand) for
work or studies but maintaining usual residence within Malaysia;
2. Malaysians who were away overseas as tourists, on short-term stay or attending
conferences/seminars or on business;
3. Expatriates and other foreign workers (including domestic workers) as well as their
4. Foreign long-term visitors and students;
5. Foreign military, naval and diplomatic personnel and their families staying in the
country, except for those who had diplomatic immunity and wished to be excluded; and
6. Persons without permanent homes and were found along footways, etc.
The following categories were excluded from the Census count on the basis that they were
staying in the country for less than six months in the year 2000:
1. Malaysian citizens and permanent residents who were away or intended to be away
from the country for six months or more in the year 2000 because of work, studies, etc.
2. Malaysian military, naval and diplomatic personnel and their families who were staying
outside Malaysia; and
3. Foreigners such as tourists, businessmen and the like who stayed or intended to be in
Malaysia for less than six months.
The detailed breakdown of non-Malaysian citizens is given in Table 1 below.
Table 1. Number of Non-Malaysian Citizens, 1991, 2000, Malaysia
Malaysian Citizens 20,971,538 16,775,752
Non-Malaysians 1,226,738 722,339
Permanent Resident 290,575
Foreign Visitor 79,521
Foreign Student 24,565
Foreign Worker 598,711
Total 22,198,276 17,498,091
Note: A breakdown of the status of non-citizens is only available from the 2000
Source: Unpublished data from the Department of Statistics, Malaysia.
International Migration Statistics Produced by Government Agencies
The Department of Immigration, under the purview of the Ministry of Home Affairs, is in charge of
issuing the relevant visa to foreigners to enter Malaysia. The work permit for the foreign worker is,
however, approved by the One-Stop Centre established within the Ministry of Home Affairs. The
One-Stop Centre consists of representatives from the various government agencies that deal with
foreign workers. In the case of domestic workers, the Department of Immigration approves their work
The states of Sabah and Sarawak have autonomy over immigration matters, and hence the
respective departments issue the visa and the work permit.
Data on migrant workers in Malaysia are compiled by the Immigration Department of
Malaysia, and selected data on migrant workers were published in its 2006 Annual Report (The data
are not posted online. The website of the Immigration Department is in two languages: Bahasa
Malaysia and English).
The 2006 Annual Report contained annual stock and flow data on expatriates and annual
stock data on semi-skilled and unskilled contract migrant workers by country and by sector. Data on
expatriates by sector and occupation are available, but these are unpublished.
Currently, no agency keeps record on emigrants. However, data on those who have renounced
their Malaysian citizenship is available from the Ministry of Home Affairs.
The Ministry of Home Affairs occasionally releases estimates of unauthorized migrants in the country.
Very often, these figures are released as a response to questions in the Parliament or when the Minister
issues a press statement.
Estimating the size of the migrant population in the country is a rather slippery task as the
number of migrants in an irregular status varies drastically. The number of undocumented workers
falls drastically following a crackdown or amnesty, but rises sharply thereafter. Moreover, defining the
term “irregular” or “unlawful” migration itself is fraught with difficulties, especially in the case of
Sabah, which has a unique migration experience.
There are several categories of foreigners who are classified as irregular migrants. Generally,
foreign nationals who fall under any of the following categories are classified as “irregular” or
I. Unauthorized entry and employment;
II. Authorized entry but unauthorized employment;
III. Authorized entry and employment but work permits invalidated;
IV. Refugees; and
V. Children of undocumented migrants or refugees born in Malaysia, but whose births
were not registered with the relevant authorities.
See Department of Immigration, Malaysia (2007), 2006 Annual Report.
I. Foreigners who enter the country using entry points other than the authorized ports of entry are
classified as undocumented migrants. They enter either on their own or facilitated by agents or human
traffickers. The main motive of these irregular migrants is to seek employment or engage in petty
II. The second category includes all foreign nationals who enter the country using tourist visa, the
social visit pass or the student visa, but overstay to seek employment or engage in light commercial
III. Migrants whose work permits have been revoked unlawfully by employers also fall into irregular
status. Such instances include disputes between the employer and the migrant worker, whereby the
employer may unilaterally terminate the latter’s employment, and hence his visa and work permit.
IV. Malaysia is not a signatory to the United Nations Convention on Refugee Status (1951) and the
New York Protocol (1967), and therefore the position of the refugees in Malaysia remains unresolved.
Despite the humanitarian problems, the state has refused to officially recognize refugees fearing that
the country would turn into a hub for political dissidents and undocumented migrants given its
strategic location in the region. At best, it only provides assistance on a case-by-case basis.
V. Children of undocumented workers and refugees born in Malaysia are automatically classified as
undocumented by virtue of the irregular status of their parents. According to the 2006 state census,
there are more than 100,000 stateless Filipinos in Sabah. Many of them are family members of the
refugees. They were born in Sabah but have not been granted permanent resident status.
The current estimate of the number migrants in irregular status in the Peninsula is around 0.7
million (Malaysiakini, 17 July 2006 ). In the state of Sabah, the official estimate ranges from 150,000
to 200,000 (The Star, 9 May 2000), while unofficially it is estimated to be as high as 600,000 to 1.7
million (Sunday Star, 18 November 2007).
The Department of Immigration should be able to collate data on immigrant workers who leave the
country, but at present it does not process such data.
In general, the government does not collect statistics on emigrants who return to Malaysia.
The government, however, introduced the Brain-Gain Scheme in 1995 following rising skill
scarcity to encourage overseas Malaysian scientists to return home as well as to recruit foreign
scientists. The government estimate of Malaysian experts serving abroad is around 30,000 (The Star,
21 September 2004).
The Scheme was not very successful as Malaysian wages and working conditions were not
attractive enough. Though economic and living conditions at home have improved significantly with
The author gave the definitions.
rapid economic advancement, some of the political push factors resurface periodically, discouraging
overseas Malaysians from returning. The original Scheme attracted only 23 Malaysians and was
suspended in 1997 following the outbreak of the financial crisis.
The Brain Gain Scheme was re-introduced in January 2001 by providing a wide range of
incentives10 and extending it to a wider range of skills. By end 2006, about 300 experts had returned
to work in Malaysia, and about one-third was medical professionals.
The Central Bank of Malaysia or Bank Negara Malaysia maintains a Cash Balance of Payments
Reporting System which captures almost all cross-border transactions effected through the domestic
banking system as well as transactions effected through the inter-company accounts and overseas
account maintained by residents with non-residents abroad.
The purpose of the transactions (payments or receipts) is classified in accordance with the BOP
(balance of payments) classifications, such as Goods, Services, Income, Current Transfers and
Financial (such as foreign direct investment, investment abroad, portfolio investment, etc.)
Income earned and repatriated by Malaysians working abroad and income earned and
repatriated by expatriates working in Malaysia are classified as Compensation of Employee under the
Income Account of BOP. Meanwhile, wages earned and repatriated by foreign migrant workers
working in Malaysia are classified under the Current Transfers Account.
The above data are reported by banks periodically. However, the amount of information and
frequency of reporting vary, depending on the threshold of each individual transaction. As stated
above, the banks need to classify the purpose of the payments/receipts in accordance with BOP
All remittances arising from workers (whether migrant workers or expatriates) effected
through the banks are captured by the banks and reported to the Central Bank.
The total migrant worker remittances data are published by the Department of Statistics,
Malaysia, under the Current Transfers Account of BOP Table. This data is estimated based on
average remittances per worker (obtained through a survey) multiplied by the number of foreign
migrant workers working in Malaysia.
Under BOP compilation standard, a foreign worker working in an economy is classified as a
resident in that economy if he/she stays in that country for more than 1 year. Thus, income repatriated
to his home country is classified under Current Transfers, and not Income Account. Meanwhile,
income earned by expatriates (normally less than 1 year) is classified under Income Account.
Coordinating/ Harmonizing International Migration Data
Incentives provided under the Programme include income tax exemption, import duty and sales tax exemption for two
cars, tax exemption on personal belongings, car import license and permanent resident status for spouse and children of the
returning Malaysian to be granted within six months of arrival in Malaysia.
Currently, there is no coordinated approach towards the collection, dissemination and sharing of
international migration data.
However, improvements have been made in the collection and dissemination of data on
migrants and migrant workers in Malaysia. For instance, the Department of Statistics has for the first
time collected detailed data on non-Malaysian citizens in its 2000 Population Census, and such data is
available for a fee. The Immigration Department has also computerized data on expatriates, skilled
workers and all documented contract migrant workers. The data is available on request for specific
studies. Recently, selected data has been published in the Annual Report of the Immigration
Assessment of International Migration Data
With the exception of data on the inflow of low-skilled contract migrant workers and outflow of
Malaysians, all other categories of data on international migrants and migrant workers is computerized
and available on written request.
Even the availability and quality of data on low-skilled migrant workers has improved over the
years. Malaysia began documenting the inflow of contract migrant workers in the early 1990s, when
the population of low-skilled migrant workers increased significantly. The reliability of the data has
improved significantly over the years with the institution of more formal recruitment systems
combined with tough sanctions to reduce unauthorized entry and employment.
Nonetheless, the incidence of irregular migration of low-skilled migrants remains relatively
high given Malaysia’s long and porous borders and its close proximity to key labor sending countries.
Gaps and Deficiencies
Malaysia’s database on international labor migration has improved over the years, but there are still
gaps that must be addressed.
The current focus on data collection on international migration has been on in-migrants,
especially low-skilled contract migrant workers. It does not have a database on its emigrants, though it
has a program to encourage the return migration of Malaysian talents overseas.
There is a need for greater coordination and collaboration between the various agencies that
handle international migration, especially labor migration, to collect and report data on the various
types on international migrants.
Suggestions for Improving Data Collection, Dissemination and Sharing
There has to be greater coordination and cooperation between key agencies that record data on all
types on international migrants.
A Working Committee of all the relevant agencies should be formed to decide the type of data,
the detail breakdown and who should collect and process these data. The relevant agencies include the
Immigration Department, the Employees’ Provident Fund, Ministry of Human Resources, the Ministry
of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Home Affairs
The data should be computerized and made available to all agencies that use the data for policy
purposes. Selected data should also be made publicly available on the web pages of the different
At the international level, Malaysia needs to establish a working partnership with the major
receiving and sending countries to verify the accuracy of the data
Malaysian data on international migration are only produced by government agencies. There
are no NGOs, research centers or international organizations which produce data on international
migration in the country.
Suggestions for MISA
MISA should approach ILO to be the lead agency for the collection and dissemination of data on
international migration. ILO has already initiated a database on international migration and it has the
expertise and mandate to request data from all its members.
ILO can identify the lead agency responsible for collecting country statistics in each of its
members and liaise with the agency to supply annual data on the various types of international
This study can serve as a starting point to help identify the type of country data available. ILO
can work with the lead agency in each of its member countries to identify the key migration data, the
standard definition and the level of dis-aggregation for country reporting.
ISIS Malaysia does not have the resources to provide regular data support on international
migration. The Immigration Department of Malaysia is the lead agency for international migration
data. Hence, SMC should contact the Immigration Department of Malaysia to seek its permission to
link the website to SMC.
Department of Immigration, Malaysia. Available at http://www.imi.gov/eng/perkhidmatan/.
Malaysiakini, 21 November 2007. Available at http://malaysiakini.com.
The Star, 25 October 2007
The Sunday Star, 18 November 2007
In press. “High-Skilled versus Low Skilled Migration: Managing a Complex Policy Agenda—East
Asian Development Network (EADN).” A funded research project on Cross-Border Labour
Flows in East Asia, November 2003-October 2004 (forthcoming publication with ISEAS
Department of Statistics, Malaysia
n.d. Unpublished data from Census 2000
Department of Immigration, Malaysia
2007 2006 Annual Report.
Malaysiakini, 17 July 2006. Available at http://malaysiakini.com.
The Star, 9 May 2000
The Star, 21 September 2004