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25 November 2020 – Malaysia

R. Latiff, “In Malaysia’s Sabah, Pandemic Rages as Migrants Flee Testing,” Reuters, 23 November 2020,
R. Latiff, “In Malaysia’s Sabah, Pandemic Rages as Migrants Flee Testing,” Reuters, 23 November 2020,

In stark contrast to the increasing efforts by many countries around the world to decrease or end child immigration detention, Malaysia continues to detain large numbers of children, despite the dangers presented by the spread of COVID-19. While UNICEF has called on governments to immediately release children to protect them during the pandemic, Malaysia reported in October that it was holding hundreds of children in migration-related detention. According to information provided by the country’s Home Minister in response to questions from Parliament, 756 children were being held in migration detention as of 26 October 2020. Of these, 405 were unaccompanied–326 of whom were unaccompanied child refugees from Myanmar.

UNHCR, however, has been denied access to immigration detention centres since August 2019, and thus cannot clarify the refugee status of these children, or the procedures they have been granted access to. “Immigration authorities should stop playing games with people’s lives and immediately release all detained children and grant the UN refugee agency access to all detained refugees and asylum seekers,” said Human Rights Watch deputy Asia director, in a statement on 20 November.

Malaysian authorities have conducted numerous raids and immigration arrests since May 2020, placing all apprehended persons in already overcrowded detention facilities (for more on these raids, see our 3 May Malaysia update on this platform). During the summer, several detention facilities witnessed COVID-19 outbreaks, prompting the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants to warn that raids and arrests of migrants were “undermining the effort to fight the pandemic in the country.” In particular, he noted that fear of arrest and detention may mean that “migrants might not come forward anymore for testing or access health services even when showing symptoms of the coronavirus.” Indeed, recent reports have highlighted that undocumented migrants, refugees, and stateless persons in Sabah Province have been evading Ministry of Health COVID-19 screening campaigns, out of fear that they will be detained and deported. Doctors in the state, which accounts for nearly half of all cases in the country, have also reported that non-nationals have delayed seeking treatment when they contract the virus, likely contributing to higher levels of infection–as well as higher death rates.