25 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.
- UNICEF, “Children in Detention are at Heightened Risk of Contracting COVID-19 and Should be Released,” 13 April 2020, https://www.unicef.org/press-releases/children-detention-are-heightened-risk-contracting-covid-19-and-should-be-released
- Human Rights Watch, “Malaysia: End Abusive Immigration Detention,” 20 November 2020, https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/11/20/malaysia-end-abusive-immigration-detention
- The Star, “Malaysia Must Free the Children in Immigration Detention,” 7 November 2020, https://www.thestar.com.my/opinion/letters/2020/11/07/malaysia-must-free-the-children-in-immigration-detention-centres
- Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, “News Release: Malaysia/COVID-19: “Stop Crackdown on Migrants, Journalists and Civil Society,” 21 May 2020, https://bangkok.ohchr.org/news-release-malaysia-covid-19-stop-crackdown-on-migrants-journalists-and-civil-society-un-rights-experts/
- R. Latiff, “In Malaysia’s Sabah, Pandemic Rages as Migrants Flee Testing,” Reuters, 23 November 2020, https://uk.reuters.com/article/health-coronavirus-malaysia-sabah/in-malaysias-sabah-pandemic-rages-as-migrants-flee-testing-idUSL4N2HY17A
04 June 2020
On 4 June, Malaysia recorded 277 COVID-19 cases—the highest daily figure recorded since the start of the outbreak. 270 of these cases involved foreigners detained at the Bukit Jalil Immigration Detention Depot, which has a reported capacity of 1,500 people.
Previously, on 25 May, the country’s Director General for Health Noor Hisham Abdullah announced that there were 172 confirmed cases of COVID-19, of which 159 were foreigners, including 112 cases in three of the country’s immigration detention facilities (in Sepang, Bukit Jalil, and Semenyih). Subsequently, Ministry of Health authorities announced that they would undertake measures to contain the outbreak at Bukit Jalil Immigration Detention Depot, including disinfecting the site, and ensuring that people housed there practice social distancing and wash their hands frequently.
According to one report, detainees who test positive are sent to one of three quarantine and treatment centres, including an agricultural exhibition space that state media has reported is "under heavy guard."
In total, there have been 608 confirmed cases of COVID-19 from immigration detention centres, including two that have recovered. Human rights groups and the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia have criticised the government’s round-up of migrants (including Rohingya refugees), its failure to erect a firewall between immigration control and healthcare services, as well as its continued policies of detention of foreigners. Preethi Bhardwaj, interim executive director of Amnesty International Malaysia told Al Jazeera: "[Detainees'] health and lives have been put at risk."
- A. Ananthalakshmi, “More than 100 die in Malaysian immigration detention camps in two years,” Reuters, 30 March 2017, https://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-malaysia-detention-deaths-exclusive/more-than-100-die-in-malaysian-immigration-detention-camps-in-two-years-idUKKBN1710GT
- BenarNews, “COVID-19 Cluster at Malaysia Immigration Detention Center Includes 17 From Myanmar,” Radio Free Asia, 21 May 2020, https://www.rfa.org/english/news/myanmar/malaysia-coronavirus-05212020181111.html
- J. Bunyan, “Malaysia’s new Covid-19 cases spike today, with 270 patients from Immigration detention centre,” Malay Mail, 4 June 2020, https://www.malaymail.com/news/malaysia/2020/06/04/malaysia-records-277-new-covid-19-cases-only-four-locals-infected/1872470#.XtjZp7isOU4.twitter
- E. Fishbein and J.T. Hkawng, “Immigration detention centres become Malaysia coronavirus hotspot,” Al Jazeera, 2 June 2020, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/06/immigration-detention-centres-malaysia-coronavirus-hotspot-200602004727890.html
- Malaysiakini, “277 new Covid-19 cases, including 6 Malaysians,” 4 June 2020, https://www.malaysiakini.com/news/528738
- Undocumented Migrants are Handcuffed Together as they are Escorted to an Immigration Detention Centre after a Raid on May 20 in an Area of Petaling Jaya, (Hasnoor Hussain, Al Jazeera, "Immigration detention centres become Malaysia coronavirus hotspot," Al-Jazeera, 2 June 2020, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/06/immigration-detention-centres-malaysia-coronavirus-hotspot-200602004727890.html)
26 May 2020
According to information submitted to the GDP by Kendra Rinas, the IOM’s Chief of Mission in Malaysia, all immigration detainees (believed by the IOM to number over 13,000 people) are now being tested for the virus, and on 26 May authorities ceased issuing new detention orders. These developments emerged following news of rapidly rising numbers of confirmed cases inside Malaysian immigration “depots.”
Despite the threat the pandemic poses to detained populations, Malaysian authorities have scaled up immigration arrests, carrying out raids in areas with large numbers of migrants and refugees (see 3 May update). On 21 May, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, Felipe González Morales, criticised the country for its treatment of non-nationals during the crisis, pointing to the raids and arrests and warning, “In such a situation, migrants might not come forward anymore for testing, or access health services even when showing symptoms of the coronavirus.”
Malaysia is one of several countries - another notable case being South Africa (see our 26 May update on the country) - that have failed to put up “firewalls” between agencies during the crisis that would enable undocumented people to access services without risk of enforcement measures like arrest or detention, which risks exasperating the crisis.
As many have feared, cases of Covid-19 amongst the country’s immigration detainee population began to rise in the wake of these raids. On 25 May, the country’s Director General for Health Noor Hisham Abdullah announced 172 new cases – of which 159 were foreigners, including 112 cases in three of the country’s immigration detention facilities (in Sepang, Bukit Jalil, and Semenyih).
According to the IOM, deportations have continued throughout the pandemic. On 12 May, almost 400 Myanmar nationals were deported on charter flights – reportedly in an effort to free up additional space in detention facilities. (The previous day, for example, saw more than 1,300 non-nationals—including 98 children—arrested in a raid in Kuala Lumpur.) Rinas also adds that several embassies have been working with immigration authorities to expedite deportations in order to prevent lengthy stays in detention.
- Kendra Rinas (International Organisation for Migration (IOM)), GDP Survey, 26 May 2020, https://www.iom.int/countries/malaysia
- Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), “Malaysia/ COVID-19: ‘Stop Crackdown on Migrants, Journalists and Civil Society’ – UN Rights Experts,” 21 May 2020, https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=25900&LangID=E
- Channel News Asia, “Malaysia Reports 172 New COVID-19 Cases, Mostly Illegal Immigrants in Detention Centres,” 25 May 2020, https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/asia/covid-19-malaysia-illegal-immigrants-detention-centres-12767578
- J. Zack, “Immigration Detains 1,368 Illegals After Kuala Lumpur Wholesale Market Raid Monday (May 11),” The Star, 12 May 2020, https://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2020/05/12/immigration-detains-1368-illegals-after-kuala-lumpur-wholesale-market-raid-monday-may-11
- Immigration Director-General Datuk Khairul Dzaimee Daud (left) and other Immigration officers check the papers of a detained non-national (The Star, https://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2020/05/12/immigration-detains-1368-illegals-after-kuala-lumpur-wholesale-market-raid-monday-may-11)
03 May 2020
Refugees and undocumented migrant workers in Malaysia are being targeted as part of a purported anti-Covid-19 campaign, which has included mass arrests and raids across the country since the start of May. According to Al Jazeera, “There has been growing public anger in recent days over the presence of migrant foreigners, with some in Malaysia accusing them of spreading the coronavirus and being a burden on government resources.”
Malaysia has approximately two million registered foreign workers, however thousands more live and work in the country without proper documents. This is in part due to the fact that Malaysia does not recognise refugees and considers them to be undocumented migrants. The country is also notorious for terrible conditions in its immigration detention centres as well as its brutal penalties, including caning, for being in the country without authorisation. The Global Detention Project has documented some two dozen detention centres in the country, which are called “immigration depots.”
Rights groups, including Human Rights Watch and the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network (APRRN), reported that hundreds of migrants were taken into custody during May Day raids, including children. "Malaysian government does a U-turn on its earlier pledge not to arrest and detain undocumented migrants. Children as young as one year old have also been detained," Lilianne Fan, chairman of the Rohingya Working Group at APRRN, said in a statement. The group posted a video on Twitter reportedly showing long lines of migrants being led through the streets of Kuala Lumpur after a raid.
According to the BBC, “The raids took place in a part of the capital known to house foreigners. The UN has urged the Malaysian authorities to release children and vulnerable individuals from the detention camps where migrants are held. Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch tweeted that the detentions risked worsening the pandemic in Malaysia, both in terms of potential outbreaks inside the camps but also by making undocumented people less likely to co-operate.”
According to The Guardian, “Those detained included young children and ethnic Rohingya refugees from Myanmar. Social media posts, including some by Malaysian politicians, have recently blamed Rohingya of committing crimes and accused them of dominating areas of the capital. The xenophobic campaigns have included activists having their names and photos circulated alongside inflammatory accusations, and have injected further fear into a community struggling for food and shelter through the pandemic lockdown. Police said the operation was aimed at preventing undocumented migrants from travelling to other areas amid movement curbs imposed to contain the spread of the virus outbreak, the state news agency Bernama reported.”
The day before the May Day raids, Home Minister Datuk Seri Hamzah Zainudin said that “Rohingya nationals who are holders of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) card have no status, rights or basis to make any claims on the government.” According to a report in The Star, the Home Minister also said that anyone claiming to represent Rohingya in Malaysia would be considered illegal under the Registrar of Societies Act (RoS). He said, “The Home Ministry has made checks with the RoS and found no organisations under the name 'Rohingya' are registered in Malaysia. Any organisation that claims to represent the Rohingya ethnic group is illegal under the RoS Act, and legal action can be taken.”
- Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network (APRRN), video, https://twitter.com/APRRN_/status/1256140805921619969?s=20
- Al Jazeera, “Malaysia 'detains migrants, refugees' amid coronavirus lockdown,” 1 May 2020, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/05/malaysia-detains-migrants-refugees-coronavirus-lockdown-200501134602431.html
- BBC, “Malaysia migrant raids ‘to reduce Covid-19 spread,’” 2 May 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-52515000
- Global Detention Project, Immigration Detention in Malaysia, https://www.globaldetentionproject.org/countries/asia-pacific/malaysia
- Kaamil Ahmed (The Guardian), “Malaysia cites Covid-19 for rounding up hundreds of migrants,” 2 May 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2020/may/02/malaysia-cites-covid-19-for-rounding-up-hundreds-of-migrants
- Still from video of migrant raids in Kuala Lumpur, 1 May 2020, Youtube, https://youtu.be/tGxGcPp-kfM
16 April 2020
In late February, some 16,000 people attended a religious gathering at a mosque on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur. Among the attendees were large numbers of undocumented Rohingya refugees. This gathering proved to be a “hotspot” for Covid-19, with significant numbers of those in attendance developing symptoms. Seeking to stem the spread of the virus, the Malaysian government, together with UNHCR, sought to trace the refugees in attendance and ensure they were tested, and authorities such as the police commissioner in Sabah - a state which is home to large numbers of migrants, refugees, and stateless persons - encouraged undocumented persons who attended the event to come forward to be tested. Although the country’s Circular 10/2001 requires health care providers to report undocumented persons to the police, the country’s Defence Minister vowed that the government would not arrest anyone based on their immigration status who sought medical services in relation to Covid-19, and the Ministry of Health confirmed that Covid-19 treatment would be free for any foreigner displaying symptoms. Despite these assurances, some organisations such as MSF have noted that the country’s past heavy-handed treatment of migrants and refugees may leave many hesitant to seek assistance.
Aside from these steps, the Malaysian government appears to have adopted few measures to protect migrants and asylum seekers, such as those behind bars. The country’s immigration detention facilities are particularly notorious for their cramped, unsanitary conditions, but to date, no detainees have been released. Instead, it appears that authorities may be continuing to place people in detention. On 5 April, the country’s Maritime Enforcement Agency intercepted a boat carrying 200 Rohingya refugees. According to Amnesty International Malaysia, this group were placed in 14-day quarantine, and are expected to soon be moved into already over-crowded immigration detention facilities. Amnesty thus called on authorities to urgently provide alternative measures to detention - particularly for elderly detainees and those with underlying health issues - to take steps to prevent overcrowding, and to ensure the right to adequate health care.
- A child is tested for COVID-19 at a temporary testing facility set up by the Malaysian Ministry of Health in a community centre on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, Al Jazeera (https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/04/fear-refugees-malaysia-home-coronavirus-lockdown-200406014514452.html)
- K. N. Das and A. Ananthalakshmi, “Malaysia Seeks Rohingya for Coronavirus Checks after Mosque Outbreak,” The National Post, 19 March 2020, https://nationalpost.com/pmn/health-pmn/malaysia-seeks-rohingya-for-coronavirus-checks-after-mosque-outbreak-sources
- Human Rights Watch, “Malaysia: Migrants, Stateless at Extra Risk from Virus,” 24 March 2020, https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/03/24/malaysia-migrants-stateless-extra-risk-virus
- E. Fishbein, “Fear Keeps Refugees in Malaysia at Home Amid Coronavirus Lockdown,” Al Jazeera, 6 April 2020, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/04/fear-refugees-malaysia-home-coronavirus-lockdown-200406014514452.html
- Amnesty International Malaysia, “Protect People in Detention at Risk of COVID-19,” 14 April 2020, https://www.amnesty.my/2020/04/14/protect-people-in-detention-at-risk-of-covid-19/
- Amnesty International Malaysia, “Hundreds of Rohingya Seeking Safety by Boat at Acute Risk from Coronavirus,” 9 April 2020, https://www.amnesty.my/2020/04/09/hundreds-of-rohingya-seeking-safety-by-boat-at-acute-risk-from-coronavirus/
- T. Arumugam, “Don’t Worry About Being Detained, Just Come Forward for Covid-19 Testing, Please,” New Straits Times, 22 March 2020, https://www.nst.com.my/news/nation/2020/03/577004/dont-worry-about-being-detained-just-come-forward-covid-19-testing-please
- Global Detention Project, “Immigration Detention in Malaysia,” https://www.globaldetentionproject.org/countries/asia-pacific/malaysia
Last updated: July 2015
Malaysia Immigration Detention Profile
One of the more vibrant economies of southeast Asia, Malaysia is a magnet for migrants and asylum seekers despite its poor human rights record and failure to ratify key human rights treaties. All unauthorized foreigners, including Rohingyas fleeing Myanmar, are considered “illegal” or “prohibited” immigrants under the Immigration Act. Immigration detention in Malaysia includes various unique and brutal features such as caning and detention aboard vessels.
Illegal entry and stay in Malaysia is criminalized and migrants often serve time in prisons before being transferred to one of the twelve administrative “immigration depots” while awaiting deportation. Caning, a legacy of British colonial rule, remains a judicial punishment for criminal offences in the Malaysian Criminal Procedure Code. It was introduced in the Immigration Act in 2002 to deter unlawful migration. According to the Home Minister, 8,481 prisoners were caned in 2013, of whom 5,968 were non-citizens. Denounced as a form of torture by Amnesty International and as “anachronistic and inconsistent with a compassionate society in a developed nation” by the national Bar Association, it is applied to adult males between 18 and 50 years old and leaves permanent physical and mental scars.
Some 68,000 people were placed in immigration detention in 2013 according to the local press including mainly Burmese, Indonesians, and Bangladeshis. The national human rights institution, SUHAKAM, reported that 1,406 children were detained in detention centres (immigration depots) from January to October 2013. Section 34(1) of the Immigration Act provides that persons may be detained for “such period as may be necessary” pending removal. Immigration detainees generally spend between two months and two years in detention.
Procedural standards are reportedly very poor. Immigration detainees are rarely informed of the reasons for detention in a language they understand and they have scant access to legal counsel. There are no alternatives to immigration detention. Some UNHCR refugee cardholders detained in immigration depots can be released subject to the government’s discretion but the UN refugee agency only has access to them after they are transferred to the depots from prisons where they first serve immigration related sentences.
The Malaysian Passport Act empowers immigration and police officers to “lawfully detain” persons unlawfully entering Malaysia on board vessels during the period that the vessel is within Malaysia or the territorial waters thereof. However, no information about the frequency of the application of this measure appears to be available.
 Act 155, Immigration Act 1959/63. Amended up to 1 January 2006. Section 55E (7). http://www.agc.gov.my/agcportal/uploads/files/Publications/LOM/EN/Act%20155.pdf
 Act 155, Immigration Act 1959/63. Amended up to 1 January 2006. Sections 6(3), 15(4) and 36. http://www.agc.gov.my/agcportal/uploads/files/Publications/LOM/EN/Act%20155.pdf
 Yuen Meikeng. Zahid: Over 8,000 prisoners caned last year. The Star online. 12 November 2014. http://www.thestar.com.my/News/Nation/2014/11/12/Zahid-Parliament-prisoners-caned/.
 Amnesty International, A Blow to Humanity: Torture by Judicial Caning in Malaysia, December 2010. https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/ASA28/013/2010/en/.
 Anil Netto. MALAYSIA: Illegal Migrant Workers May Escape the Cane. Inter Press Service. 20 March 2007. http://www.ipsnews.net/2007/03/malaysia-illegal-migrant-workers-may-escape-the-cane/.
 Gho Chee Yuan. Government spends RM2m a day to feed illegal immigrants, says deputy minister. The Star Online. 6 January 2014. http://www.themalaymailonline.com/malaysia/article/government-spends-rm2m-a-day-to-feed-illegal-immigrants.
 Human Rights Commission of Malaysia. Roundtable on Alternatives to Immigration Detention Held on 12th November 2013. http://www.suhakam.org.my/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Report-on-Roundtable-on-ATD-Malaysia.pdf.
 Report of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention: Addendum: Mission to Malaysia. A/HRC/16/47/Add.2. 8 February 2011.
 Act 150, Passport Act 1966. Incorporating all amendments up to 1 January 2006. Section 5(3). http://www.agc.gov.my/Akta/Vol.%204/Act%20150.pdf.