John Aglionby in Jakarta
Malaysia's Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad, has temporarily halted the deportation of hundreds of thousands of illegal migrants to the Philippines and Indonesia to defuse a diplomatic crisis between the three nations sparked by his decision to cane, jail, fine and deport unlawful entrants to Malaysia.
Manila and Jakarta are outraged, not only because they regard the whipping as inhumane but the mass evictions have created a humanitarian crisis. Almost 50 Indonesians have died in overcrowded camps after arriving in East Kalimantan on Borneo island from the neighbouring Malaysian state of Sabah, while Manila is furious that three Filipino children died in holding centres in Sabah.
International organisations, including Amnesty International and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), have condemned the manner and brutality of the crackdown, aimed at those believed to be responsible for rising crime across Malaysia.
Demonstrations in all three countries are adding to tensions. The Malaysian embassies in Jakarta and Manila have been targeted for the past week by sometimes violent protests. On Tuesday demonstrators in Jakarta tore down the front gates to the Malaysian embassy.
Public opinion in Malaysia, meanwhile, has been inflamed by footage of their national flag and Mahathir's photograph being ripped and burnt in neighbouring capitals. The government on Wednesday issued a travel warning after some Malaysians were allegedly harassed by police in the Indonesian city of Medan.
Philippine president Gloria Arroyo said she had 'come to an understanding' with Mahathir about the ill-treatment of her nationals and said she would send a team to Malaysia to inspect the camps and other aspects of the deportations.
'A great tragedy is happening in the southern Philippines,' she said in her weekly radio message.
It is a similar scene in Indonesia, where officials in Kalimantan and Sumatra have been overwhelmed by the sudden influx of people who have little means of providing for themselves. Aid workers in the East Kalimantan town of Nunakan are describing the situation as 'a national disaster', as thousands of people are arriving every day.
'People are sleeping in markets. They have set up tents on roadsides and in open areas. It's in those sorts of places that people are dying,' said one relief worker, Palupi. Others told how people were forced to sleep with maggots at a camp near a rubbish dump.
Most of the Indonesians who have died have been in and around Nunakan. They include at least a dozen babies and a similar number of children.
Malaysia is denying accusations of maltreatment on its side of the border. But one Minister's claim that United Nations officials had visited the camps in Sabah was rejected by the world body.
The IOM's representative, Farooq Azam, said the illegal migrants should be deported gradually to avoid chaos. 'Malaysia should not push people out in large numbers within a short period. If you take harsh measures to send people back, some human rights are bound to be violated.'
The crisis began six weeks ago when thousands of illegal migrants started leaving Malaysia ahead of a 31 July deadline on amnesty from prosecution. It is thought about 300,000, or just under half the illegal migrants believed to be in the country, left before the cut off date.
On 1 August Malaysian security forces launched a nationwide sweep for illegal migrants. The judicial process started almost immediately with the only concession that women and children were spared caning. Most of the accused are too poor to hire lawyers; at one hearing the only man to escape a caning was the only one with legal representation.
The maximum penalties are five years imprisonment, a 10,000 ringgit (£1,700) fine and six strokes of the cane.
Amnesty said there was no justification for caning people. 'Whipping someone with a cane is cruel, inhuman and degrading,' it said. 'International standards make clear that such treatment constitutes torture.'
Ironically for Mahathir, while the policy might have addressed some issues it has created new problems, particularly in the construction and agriculture sectors where most of the workforce are illegal migrants. He has thus had to reverse a ban on Indonesians working legally in construction, which in turn has provoked an outburst from Malaysian unions.