Kota Baru (Kelantan) - Malaysia may find itself grappling with a refugee/security/diplomatic problem all rolled into one if the arrival of more than 100 undocumented people from southern Thailand is a harbinger of things to come.
The 131 men, women and children, believed to be Thai-Muslims, crossed the border into Malaysia on Aug 30, claiming fear for their safety due to the unrest in southern Thailand, said Kelantan Chief Police Officer, Mr Zulkifli Abdullah.
They crossed the border into Kelantan by taking illegal taxis, using ferries or just walking across. Their leaders said thousands more Thai-Muslims were expected to follow suit.
The foreigners first took refuge in two mosques, but Malaysian police picked most of them up after local villagers alerted the authorities.
Three men, claiming to represent the group, told the Malaysian media that their group consisted of government clerical staff, teachers, religious officers and petty traders with low incomes.
One of them, a 39-year-old man, said he hoped that the Malaysian government would accord the group refugee status because they were worried about their safety should they be sent back to Thailand.
"We cannot be regarded as illegal aliens even though we enter this country without proper documentation because we were forced by circumstances following the military operation," he told reporters amid sobs.
The foreigners alleged that they were living in fear of being wrongfully targeted by the security forces hunting for suspected militants in the restive southern Thai provinces of Yala, Narathiwat and Pattani.
Chief Police Officer Zulkifli said the foreigners would be turned over to immigration officials as they had no valid travel documents.
Kelantan police have since tightened security controls and mounted intensified patrols at all entry points to prevent more Thai nationals from entering Malaysia.
* Illegals cross into Kelantan (The Star, Aug 31)
* Thai nationals flee to Kelantan (Utusan Malaysia, Sept 1)
* Kelantan police heighten security controls at all border points (Bernama, Aug 1)