On 20 April 2022, 528 Rohingya refugees–including 97 women, 294 men, and 137 children–escaped from the Relau detention centre in Sungai Bakap. According to a new local news agency, immediately before the escape there had been a “riot” at the detention centre. Most of the detainees were quickly re-detained, though seven–including three children–died while trying to cross a highway during their escape. The police have warned villagers that anyone found to be harbouring refugees could face prosecution under the Immigration Act 1959/1963 and the county’s penal code.
A consortium of NGOs, including APRRN and IDC, reported in early May that large numbers of Rohingya refugees are being held indefinitely in Malaysian immigration detention centres without the possibility of release and cannot be deported. The Malaysian Home Minister, Hamzah Zainudin, said that some refugees held at the Relau detention centre in Sungai Bakap have been detained there for over two years. Zainudin said that deportation was not possible as Myanmar was not willing to take them back and does not recognise their citizenship status. However, the NGOs highlighted that the Malaysian government has refused to allow the UNHCR access to detention centres to conduct refugee status determination procedures since August 2019.
UNHCR data indicates that in 2020, there were 129,909 refugees, 49,822 asylum seekers and 111,298 stateless persons in Malaysia. The Malaysian Immigration Department reported that as of 26 April 2022, there were 17,634 people in immigration detention centres across the country, including 3,211 women and 1,528 children. Between 2018 and February 2022, there have been 208 deaths in immigration detention centres across the country due to, inter alia, COVID-19, tuberculosis, severe pneumonia, heart complications, dengue and diabetes.
In a joint statement on the situation in Relau detention centre, APRRN, IDC, the ASEAN Parliamentarian on Human Rights, and the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (Forum-Asia) urged Malaysia to release all persons registered with UNHCR from immigration detention centres and grant UNHCR access to all centres to continue the registration of persons of concern; grant access to detention centres to Doctors Without Borders Malaysia to ensure detainees have access to medical treatments and support services; carry out a comprehensive review of the current policies and practices of immigration detention centres in Malaysia to ensure that they are in line with international standards; to ensure full transparency of the investigation and review, and make the process and results available to the public; and take steps to enact legal and policy changes to ensure children are no longer detained for migration-related reasons.
Malaysia is not a signatory to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and it has failed to adopt legislation recognising the legal status of asylum seekers and refugees, who are thus considered “illegal immigrants” under the Immigration Act 1959/1963. According to Verghis et al. (2021), while Malaysia provides a 50 percent discount off foreigner’s rate for medical fees incurred by UNHCR recognised refugees and asylum seekers, it remains unaffordable as they do not have the right to work. With the onset of COVID-19, the government assured undocumented migrants that they would not be arrested if they came forward for testing for COVID-19. Nonetheless, the subsequent mass testing of migrants in certain “Enhanced Movement Control Order” (i.e. strict lockdown) areas led to crackdowns on undocumented migrants through mass arrests and immigration raids, which included asylum seekers pending registration by UNHCR and UNHCR cardholders whose registration had expired and could not be renewed due to lockdown. These people were detained in immigration detention centres, to be deported to their countries of origin. Clusters of COVID-19 were detected in at least three of these centres.
In February 2021, the government of Malaysia said that they would extend its free COVID-19 vaccination programme to all foreigners, including students, refugees, and undocumented migrants. UNHCR welcomed the government’s efforts to ensure vaccination access to all and encouraged all refugees and asylum seekers holding UNHCR documentation to register their interest for COVID-19 vaccination through several online platforms. Nonetheless, due to the crackdown on undocumented migrants and mass arrests of refugees, many were wary of getting a COVID-19 vaccine in a government walk-in centre for undocumented migrants. According to data collected by the Oxford Martin School, Oxford University and the Global Change Data Lab, as of 1 May 2022, 81.55% of the Malaysian population had been fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
- L. T. Chern, “Depot Riot: 61 Rohingya Still at Large, Manhunt Continues, Say Cops,” The Star, 25 April 2022, https://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2022/04/25/depot-riot-61-rohingya-still-at-large-manhunt-continues-say-cops
- A. Zulkifi, “Over 500 Illegal Immigrants Escape Temporary Immigration Depot,” The Star, 20 April 2022, https://www.nst.com.my/news/crime-courts/2022/04/790226/over-500-illegal-immigrants-escape-temporary-immigration-detention
- The Star, “Immigration Dept Denies Allegations Depots Overcrowded, Understaffed,” 26 April 2022, https://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2022/04/26/immigration-dept-denies-allegations-depots-overcrowded-understaffed
- APRRN, IDC, ASEAN Parliamentarian on Human Rights, and the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (Forum-Asia), “Joint Statement on Immigration Detention Policies & Practices in Malaysia,” 2 May 2022, https://idcoalition.org/news/joint-statement-on-immigration-detention-policies-practices-in-malaysia/
- The Star, “Depot Riot: 104 Rohingya Still at Large, Says Hamzah,” 21 April 2022, https://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2022/04/21/depot-riot-104-rohingya-still-at-large-says-hamzah
- UNHCR, “Refugee Data Finder,” accessed on 2 May 2022, https://www.unhcr.org/refugee-statistics/download/?url=crZFC5
- S. Verghuis, et al., “COVID-19 and Refugees in Malaysia: An NGO Response,” (2021) Journal of Mental Health and Psychological Support in Conflict Affected Areas, 31 March 2021, https://researchmgt.monash.edu/ws/portalfiles/portal/362511491/343002379_oa.pdf
- Reuters, “Malaysia Offers COVID-19 Vaccinations to Foreign Residents , Undocumented Migrants,” 11 February 2021, https://www.reuters.com/business/healthcare-pharmaceuticals/malaysia-offers-covid-19-vaccinations-foreign-residents-undocumented-migrants-2021-02-11/
- Our World in Data, “Coronavirus (COVID-19) Vaccinations,” accessed on 2 May 2022, https://ourworldindata.org/covid-vaccinations?country=OWID_WRL
- UNHCR Malaysia, “COVID-19 Vaccination,” accessed on 2 May 2022, https://refugeemalaysia.org/support/covid-19/vaccination/
- Group of Refugees Detained on the Side of the Road by Malaysian Police Authorities (New Straits Times, “Over 500 Illegal Immigrants Escape Temporary Immigration Detention Depot,” 20 April 2022, https://www.nst.com.my/news/crime-courts/2022/04/790226/over-500-illegal-immigrants-escape-temporary-immigration-detention)