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Malaysia Extends Repatriation Deadline for Illegal Immigrants

Malaysia has extended a deadline for the forcible repatriation of illegal immigrants, many of them from tsunami-ravaged Indonesia. The move follows calls by activists and other Asian governments to avoid a repeat of previous operations, which have been criticized for human rights violations.

Malaysia had planned to begin a massive crackdown on an estimated 1.2 million illegal immigrants this week. But appeals by Indonesia and the Philippines, the home countries of most of the immigrants, have resulted in a partial reprieve.

State media quoted Malaysia's Home Minister Datuk Azmi Khalid as saying that no decision has been made about a new deadline, but that illegal immigrants are being encouraged to go home soon.

Malaysia's rapid economic growth has been a magnet for impoverished people from nearby Indonesia, a mere four-hour boat ride away. But the penalties for working illegally in Malaysia can be harsh, involving fines, jail, and even caning.

In October, the government began an amnesty program that allowed illegal workers to leave without penalty. Nearly 400,000 immigrants did so, to avoid the crackdown planned for this month.

Elizabeth Wong, secretary general of the National Human Rights Society, welcomes the reprieve, particularly because the homes of many of the migrants were destroyed in the December tsunami and earthquake.

"What the government is saying today is that they have concerns about deporting people back to tsunami-affected areas as well as refugees because this is what we have been saying for quite some time," Ms. Wong says.

Many of Malaysia's migrant workers come from Aceh province in north Indonesia. Aceh took the brunt of the earthquake and killer waves, which claimed more than 200,000 lives.

The Acehnese in addition have suffered for more than two decades because of a separatist rebellion the Indonesian military has been trying to crush.

As a result of the conflict, several thousand of the immigrants in Malaysia are seeking political asylum. But the Malaysian government, which has not signed international treaties concerning political refugees, has refused to formally recognize them as refugees.

Ms. Wong says the government should overhaul its entire policy on migrant workers to prevent human rights abuses, which she says have occurred in past crackdowns.

"Inevitably, every time there is mass deportation of migrant workers, refugees, asylum seekers, there will always be human rights abuses, and this is one area in which the human rights groups are very concerned about," Ms. Wong says.

Ms. Wong says she would like to see a permanent end to deportations in favor of registering people lacking official documents. This, she says, would help not only those seeking refuge from harsh governments back home, but assist in Malaysia's economic development.