Quick Facts

Detention centres: 17

Detention capacity: 11,400 (2007)

Est. undocumented pop.: 1.5 million (2007)

Asylum seekers: 6,851 (2007)

Detention for internment: max. 30 days

Detention for deportation: no limit

Last updated: June 2009

Malaysia Detention Profile



Detention policy

Detention infrastructure

Facts and figures



Malaysia’s immigration detention practices have attracted widespread attention because of two trends: the large number of foreign workers migrating to the country from across Southeast Asia; and Malaysia’s poor human rights record, which has been under intense national and international scrutiny, in part due to the government’s use of emergency legislation allowing for arbitrary arrest and indefinite detention without trial (GMI 2009).


Like other migrant destination countries in Asia (including, for example, South Korea), Malaysia’s relationship with immigration is shaped by contradictory forces. On the one hand, the country’s economy depends “on foreign workers for the ‘3D jobs’ (Dirty, Dangerous and Difficult) often eschewed by nationals” (FIDH-SUARAM 2008, 6). However, Malaysia’s lack of a consistent national immigration policy and a tendency among officials to demonize immigrants have led to sporadic crackdowns on illegal immigration, which have been characterized by a reliance on heavy-handed punishment. Undocumented migrants (as well as refugees, who are not recognised under Malaysian law) can be charged with criminal offenses and face imprisonment and floggings (Mydans 2007). According to human rights groups, “this punitive approach unfortunately replaces any full-fledged migration policy” (FIDH-SUARAM 2008, 7).


Detention policy. Immigration-related detention is regulated by the Prisons Act 1995 (Act 537), the Prisons Regulations 2000, and the Immigration (Administration and Management of Immigration Depots) Regulations 2003 (FIDH-SUARAM 2008, 7-8). There are three categories of immigration-related detention: internment; criminal imprisonment for offences under Malaysia’s Immigration Act; and administrative detention prior to deportation (FIDH-SUARAM 2008, 14). Persons held in administrative detention centres include individuals arrested for not having valid documentation and awaiting a sentence; and people awaiting deportation after having served a prison sentence for illegal immigration (Suhakam 2003). While limitations on the length of internment before seeing a magistrate range from 28 to 30 days, persons subject to a deportation order can be held “for such a period as is necessary in order to make arrangements for his or her removal … [h]ence, the detention can be indeterminate” (FIDH-SUARAM 2008, 14).


The Immigration Act outlines specific crimes and their associated punishments, many of which are draconian. Section 6(1)(c), for example, provides the following punishment for entering and staying in Malaysia without a permit: “Fine not exceeding RM10,000 or … imprisonment for a term not exceeding 5 years or … both, and shall also be liable to whipping of not more than 6 strokes.” Other crimes subject to flogging under the act include employing a person without a valid permit, forging identity documents, and harbouring a person who has violated the Immigration Act. Remaining in Malaysia after the expiration of an entry permit and “entry into and departure from Malaysia at an unauthorized landing place, airport or point of entry” carry the same punishment: “Fine not exceeding RM10,000 or … imprisonment for a term not exceeding 5 years or … both.”


The limited rights afforded detainees have been criticised, including the lack of protections provided vulnerable groups. Immigration Regulation leaves the segregation of detainees according to age or sex to the discretion of the officer in charge of the immigration detention depot (FIDH-SUARAM 2008, 15). While immigration detention regulation foresees that children under 12 may remain with a parent in detention, no special provisions exist for adolescents or unaccompanied minors. In June 2007, a government delegation reported that 360 children were being held in immigration depots with their mothers (FIDH-SUARAM 2008, 16).


The detention of children and women, including those seeking asylum, has been harshly criticized by rights groups. In a joint “Memorandum to the Immigration Department of Malaysia” issued in late 2006, a host of national and international human rights NGOs wrote, “Through our investigations and from other credible sources, we have learned that the Immigration Department is detaining scores of asylum seeker children, pregnant women and other vulnerable individuals, mainly from Burma/Myanmar, at various detention camps and prisons around the country. Since April of 2006, we have recorded at least 13 mass-scale raids at different locations around the country by the Immigration Department and Rela (Malaysian People's Volunteer Corps). Also arrested and detained in these round-ups are children, mothers, pregnant women and other extremely vulnerable individuals who have come to this country for no other reason than to seek a safe haven from persecution and serious human rights violations in their home country. … [T]he government has consistently tried to justify the detention of refugees and asylum seekers on the ground that they are illegal entrants and that Malaysian immigration law does not recognize their status as a special category of people who need international protection. This indiscriminate policy has rendered refugees and their children vulnerable and defenseless against exploitation, detention and deportation” (SUARAM et al 2006).


Malaysia has not adopted key international instruments that protect the rights of migrants. The country is not party to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees or the 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees. Refugee status does not exist in Malaysian law, thus refugees are often  treated as irregular immigrants (FIDH-SUARAM 2008, 7; HRW 2009). However, refugees who have been recognised by UNHCR and obtained UNHCR documents may nonetheless enjoy de facto protection at the national level (FIDH-SUARAM 2008, 9).


Since 2002, Malaysian authorities have sought to confront unauthorized immigration by alternating mass raids on illegal immigrants with brief amnesty periods, during which undocumented migrants can leave the country without danger of criminal charges under the Immigration Act being brought against them (FIDH-SUARAM 2008, 11). Particularly controversial has been the use of Rela, the Ikatan Relawan Rakyat Malaysia (or, “Volunteers of Malaysian People”)—a volunteer force of some half a million people that purportedly helps maintain peace and security in the country—to carry out raids and help manage Malaysia’s immigration detention centres (Bernama 2009). Rela members have extensive powers: They have the “right to bear and use firearms, stop, search and demand documents, arrest without warrant, and enter premises without warrant, and all these powers can be exercised when the Rela personnel has reasonable belief that any person is a terrorist, undesirable person, illegal immigrant or an occupier” (FIDH-SUARAM 2008, 11). Furthermore, until June 2007, Rela members were paid for every person arrested (FIDH-SUARAM 2008, 11; Mydans 2007). Rela has been criticised for human rights abuses, including excessive use of force, extortion of documented immigrants during raids, and destroying the documentation of legal immigrants in order to secure more arrests (Mydans 2007; FIDH-SUARAM 2008, 12; Moe 2009; HRW 2009).


The Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) has the right to visit prisons and detention depots, and provides some details of conditions in its annual reports (Suhakam 2003). Since 2007, the Malaysian government has allowed more access to NGOs to the detention centres (FIDH-SUARAM 2008, 16).


Detention infrastructure. The Global Detention Project has identified 17 immigration detention centres—called “depots”—in Malaysia. At the end of 2007, Malaysian officials reported that 10,136 people were being held in immigration detention centres, and that the centres had an aggregate capacity of 11,400 (Nah 2009). The Malaysian Minister of Home Affairs reported that between January and November 2007, Rela had detained 30,332 undocumented migrants (Mydans 2007).


The conditions of Malaysian immigration detention depots vary greatly. This variety largely depends on the warden of each centre, who has some discretion over budgetary spending (FIDH-SUARAM 2008, 18). However, the overall state of Malaysia’s detention infrastructure is gravely substandard. Complaints range from inadequate facilities, food provisions, and healthcare, to abuses by personnel and delays in repatriation (Suhakam 2003). According to Suhakam, between 2002 and 2008, 1,300 illegal immigrants died in detention, largely due to the detention conditions and inadequate provision of healthcare (Star 2008).


Cells in detention facilities are neither heated in the winter nor air conditioned in the summer. While some depots provide detainees with a sheet, others provide no bedding whatsoever. Former detainees as well as civil society representatives report overcrowding, although no official statistics have been made available by the authorities. Former detainees from the Lenggeng camp report that 300-400 detainees are held in the same large cell, and that not everyone is able to lie down on the floor at the same time. Overcrowding has resulted in poor hygienic conditions. In some depots, up to 400 detainees share four toilets. Furthermore, no provisions for daily exercise exist in the Semenyih camp, in violation of the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (FIDH-SUARAM 2008, 18-19).


Food provisions also fail to meet minimum requirements. According to one report, each detainee is only provided one cup or half a bottle of water each day. Although detainees are provided with twice daily meals, reports of hunger and malnutrition persist. Overcrowding, poor hygiene, and malnutrition have been blamed for the transmission of infectious diseases among detainees. Although a nurse is reportedly on site during weekdays, the availability of healthcare varies according to the depot (FIDH-SUARAM 2008, 19).


Former detainees have reported verbal, physical, and sexual abuse at the hands of detention centre staff (FIDH-SUARAM 2008, 19; Prem Kumar & Grundy-Warr 2004, 50). There are official complaint mechanisms for reporting maltreatment in immigration depots, but it is unclear whether external complaint mechanisms are effective, and whether detainees can make use of internal complaint mechanisms without fear of retribution by detention depot staff (FIDH-SUARAM 2008, 20).


Facts and figures. An estimated 3 million foreign workers reside in Malaysia, of whom an estimated 1.5 million are unauthorized (Mydans 2007). Most of the foreign labour force originates from ASEAN and neighbouring countries, with large immigrant groups of Filipinos, Indonesians, and Bangladeshis (FIDH-SUARAM 2008, 6). Additionally, the UNHCR reports that 6,851 asylum seekers resided in Malaysia at the end of 2007 (UNHCR 2008). During the first 11 months of 2007, 30,332 people were reported to have been detained for lacking travel documents (Mydans 2007). Of these, in June 2007, a government delegation reported that 360 children were being held in immigration depots with their mothers (FIDH-SUARAM 2008, 15).