This isn't the first time that the authorities in relatively prosperous Malaysia have conducted campaigns to eject illegal workers, who typically fill menial jobs in industries like construction. But the scale and severity of the current crackdown is unprecedented. Scores of illegal immigrants have been arrested; some have been sentenced to caning and lengthy prison terms. The harsh treatment has ignited a political and diplomatic firestorm. Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo phoned Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad to make a personal appeal for a moratorium on deportations of Filipinos. Amien Rais, speaker of the Indonesian Parliament, warned that Malaysia was "playing with fire" by mistreating foreign workers.
Malaysian authorities deny any maltreatment of deportees. And Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar reacted angrily to the burning of his country's flag by protesters in Manila. "Have they forgotten this is the place that their countrymen earn a living?" he asked. "Is this how they show their appreciation?" To many Indonesians and Filipinos, the fact that they can no longer earn their living in Malaysia is precisely the problem.