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Thousands Face Deportation in Malaysian Immigration Crackdown

A shadow of a migrant enforcement officer is cast on a makeshift shelter, built by suspected illegal migrant workers, as he tries to break a locked door during a crackdown on illegal migrant workers in Nilai, outside Kuala Lumpur September 1, 2013.
More than 2,000 immigrants in Malaysia have spent the night in detention centers in a nationwide crackdown on illegal immigration that authorities say could deport hundreds of thousands of people.

Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi told the press the 2,433 detainees were among approximately 8,000 people examined by authorities in dozens of operations that began Sunday.

“This shows the seriousness of the Home Ministry and Immigration Department [to flush out the illegal immigrants]. Ours is not a spur-of-the-moment action,” Ahmad Zahid said Monday, as quoted by Malaysia's national news agency, Bernama.

The Home minister told reporters that so far, authorities have detained 717 Indonesian nationals, 555 Burmese nationals, 387 Bangladeshi nationals and 229 Nepali nationals. He said authorities also detained immigrants from Cambodia, Vietnam, India, Pakistan, the Philippines, China, Nigeria and Thailand.

Officials say more than 400,000 immigrants could be affected by the operation. Many of them hold low-paying construction and plantation jobs, while others work as domestic helpers or in massage parlors.

Thanks, but no thanks

Their labor has helped build Malaysia into Southeast Asia’s third largest economy. But as the economy has weakened, concerns have grown among some Malaysians that foreigners could push down wages and drive up crime.

The government has vacillated in its approach to illegal immigration over the past decade, from whipping and fining people for working illegally in Malaysia, to registering 1.3 million of an estimated two million undocumented foreigners for an amnesty program in 2011.

The crackdown that began Sunday is focusing first on immigrants who signed up for amnesty but didn’t finish the process.

It comes as Malaysia is trying to transition to a higher-skilled economy and is facing a slower growth rate than expected. The central bank recently downgraded Malaysia’s economic growth forecast from 6 percent to between 4.5 and 5 percent this year.

Human rights

Malaysian authorities say they are working with foreign embassies to repatriate the undocumented workers. Home Minister Ahmad Zahid also said authorities will take action in accordance with international law to avoid human trafficking.

Malaysia is a destination and transit country for trafficking victims who suffer exploitation and abuse as forced laborers and sex slaves. The U.S. Department of State placed Malaysia on its Tier 2 human trafficking Watch List for the fourth consecutive year this year, because the government does not fully comply with the minimum standards for ending trafficking.