The UN High Commissioner for Refugees expressed concern that some of the Indonesians facing deportation might be political refugees fleeing persecution. "Yesterday we sent a letter to the Malaysian authorities expressing concern about what happened in the detention centre and again pointing out that UNHCR needed access to those people," said a spokesman in Geneva.
Amnesty International issued a statement questioning the force used by the Malaysian police and urged an independent inquiry. "The deaths of eight Indonesians in a repatriation operation in the early hours of this morning raise serious questions about the process," it said.
Eight Indonesians and one Malaysian policeman were killed in a riot at the Semenyih detention camp, 25 miles outside the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur. About 100 internees escaped from another nearby camp, while police used water cannon and tear gas on rioters at a third detention centre near the west coast port of Malacca.
The Indonesians were illegal immigrants from Aceh, a Muslim region on Sumatra, where separatist guerrillas are fighting for independence from Jakarta. Malaysian police moved in at dawn to deport the Acehnese, who were captured in an aggressive crackdown directed against the growing numbers of migrants who have been crossing the straits dividing Indonesia from Malaysia and Singapore.
Since the collapse of the Indonesian currency last year, hundreds of thousands of Indonesians have lost their jobs; the number is certain to continue rising. The prospect of waves of "boat people" from Indonesia is causing great alarm to its South-east Asian neighbours.
For years, the government tolerated the presence of illegal workers as they were needed to build the many ambitious construction projects marking Malaysia's growing affluence. But the country is now suffering its own economic crisis. Many of the building projects have been delayed or cancelled, and more than 17,000 illegal immigrants have been arrested since the beginning of the year.