Malaysia has begun a major crackdown on illegal immigrants following the expiration of a four-month amnesty. While the government says the operation will be humane, human-rights groups have expressed concerns.
About 400 immigration officers and volunteers raided a construction site just outside the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur. It was the first of what the government promises will be a nationwide crackdown on illegal immigrants in the country.
About 300,000 volunteers and officials have been trained, some with firearms, to carry out the raids. More than 400,000 illegal immigrants, mostly from Indonesia and other impoverished Asian countries, have left Malaysia under the amnesty program, but hundreds of thousands more are still believed to remain.
The deadline for illegals to leave was extended several times. Malaysian Home Minister Azmi Khalid said Monday that the immigrants had been given more than ample time to depart, and he hoped they would take the government seriously this time.
As the raids got underway, the ferry terminal at Port Klang, about 40 kilometers from the capital, was packed with Indonesians ready to take the four-hour boat ride back home.
The penalties for illegal immigrants include fines, jail, and caning for those under the age of 50. But many take the risk because of the scarcity of jobs back home. Malaysia's severe shortage of cheap labor provides a ready market for their services.
Many of those who are caught in the current sweep will be sent to processing centers in Indonesia, where they can obtain work visas and come straight back to Malaysia - sometimes in a matter of a couple of weeks.
S. Arutchelvan, of the human rights group Suaram, says the government could spare the migrants the inconvenience, and sometimes the danger, of returning to their home countries, by giving them legal work visas while they are still in the country.
"What we propose was the government document all illegal workers and let them work here… The government point was, 'We will send them back, we will not blacklist them, and they could immediately come back and work.' We think that is quite ridiculous."
Rights groups also point to the possibility of legitimate asylum seekers being caught in the dragnet. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has documented thousands of migrants from Indonesia and Burma who have fled human-rights abuses at home."
An officer of a semi-official organization was quoted by the government-run Bernama news agency as saying those claiming to be under the protection of the UNHCR would be released, if their claims were found to be valid.