Malaysia set up roadblocks and deployed the police, immigration and volunteer security services after more than 500 mostly Muslim Rohingya refugees fled a temporary immigration detention centre in the country’s north.
Some 528 Rohingya escaped the centre in the northern state of Penang a couple of hours before dawn on Wednesday, after a riot in the compound, which was previously used as a camp for Malaysia’s short-lived national service programme.
Six people, including two women and two children, were killed as they tried to cross the nearby highway at about 6:50am (22:50 GMT on Tuesday) and were struck by fast-moving vehicles.
“The bodies were thrown all over the highway,” Atan, a local resident who saw the accident as he was driving his children to school, told the local New Straits Times newspaper. “It was a sad scene. Innocent lives were lost just like that.”
Videos shared on social media showed mostly women and children jogging along the side of the road in the darkness. Others showed groups of people squatting on the verge by the highway after being detained by police.
The paper said nearby villagers “apprehended” 88 of those who had fled the centre, and immigration chief Khairul Dzaimee Daud said 362 people had been rearrested by 10am (02:00 GMT) on Wednesday.
The Rohingya escaped the centre after breaking through barriers and a door, Khairul said in a statement. Some 23 guards were on duty at the time, and they called the police and other enforcement agencies for assistance, he added.
The cause of the riot and break-out is under investigation. Some 664 people were being held at the centre at the time.
Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fled Myanmar five years ago amid a brutal military crackdown that is now the subject of a genocide investigation at the International Court of Justice. Many remain in vast refugee camps in Bangladesh while others risk the increasingly dangerous journey across the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea to reach Indonesia and Malaysia, even though neither country is a signatory to the UN convention on refugees.
About 181,000 people are currently living as refugees and asylum-seekers in Malaysia, about 57 percent are Rohingya, according to the UN refugee agency.
Malaysia has no system to process applications for asylum and most refugees live a precarious existence, at risk of arrest as “illegal migrants” or exploitation in low-paid jobs that Malaysians avoid.