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Malaysia Pledges Continued Crackdown on Illegal Immigrants

Malaysia says its latest crackdown on illegal immigrants will continue indefinitely. But Home Minister Azmi Khalid says Malaysia will not repatriate asylum seekers caught in the dragnet.

The Malaysian authorities arrested around 560 foreigners nationwide on the first day of the controversial crackdown on illegal immigrants. The detained suspects were among more than 5,000 people questioned during the dawn raids.

Malaysian Home Minister Azmi Khalid says the crackdown will continue indefinitely despite protests from human rights groups. "It will go on forever so long as we have illegals," he said. "As long we have illegals we have to go on."

The rights groups are particularly concerned about the possible repatriation of asylum seekers and refugees. But Mr. Azmi insists that will not happen. "We have made it clear that those protected under the UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees], we will not touch them - even without papers," he said. "But if we know where they are from, we will not touch them."

Mr. Azmi, speaking at a news conference, also says asylum seekers currently in Malaysia will be allowed to look for work. Most of those detained are from Indonesia and the Philippines, but nationals of other Southeast Asian countries were also hauled in. The operation has also netted five Britons, an Italian, two Americans and 23 French nationals.

Mr. Azmi says many of the detained westerners were working in white collar jobs while holding tourist visas. The government has said illegal immigrants who returned home under a four-month-long amnesty will be allowed to return to Malaysia with work visas. They are needed in Malaysia's booming construction and plantations industries, which face severe labor shortages.

About 300,000 police, immigration officers and volunteers are taking part in the crackdown - one of the largest in years. More than 400,000 illegal immigrants left Malaysia under the amnesty, but hundreds of thousands more are believed to have stayed on. If arrested, these people face fines, prison and caning before deportation. They will also be barred from ever returning to Malaysia.