03 May 2022
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)
16 June 2021
Since the onset of the pandemic, Malaysian authorities have argued that crack-downs on undocumented migrants and other non-nationals are necessary to stop the spread of COVID-19. A recent example is the 24 May-28 June 2021 nationwide lockdown--referred to in Malaysia as a Movement Control Order (MCO)--during which Home Ministry officials have carried out wide-scale raids leading to the arrest of hundreds of undocumented migrants. Officials have said the raids are necessary to ensure that foreigners get vaccinated. Said the Home Minister: “If they are not detained, will they go out to get vaccinated? That is why they are detained.”
This policy appears to directly contradict earlier comments made by Malaysia’s Co-ordinating Minister for Immunisation, in which he reassured non-nationals that they would not face retribution should they come forward for vaccination (see 18 February 2021 update on this platform).
NGOs, lawyers, and health experts have condemned the new wave of raids, arguing that such measures will encourage non-nationals to flee and hide from authorities, complicating efforts to curb the virus. They point, also, to the spike in infections witnessed within detention facilities following raids in May 2020 (for more, see 4 June 2020 update on this platform). As the director of the Malaysian Medicine Association said following a raid in the city of Cyberjaya in which 202 undocumented migrants were rounded up: “The usual practice of ‘raid and detain’ must stop and better ways should be sought to tackle the problem of undocumented migrants. More raids will result in more detention centre clusters as we have repeatedly seen.”
In the wake of these raids, tensions appear to have emerged between the Malaysian government and UNHCR. On 12 June, the Home Ministry said that it had requested that UNHCR supply its list of all refugees in the country for the purpose of vaccinations. According to a news article published on 15 June, the Home Minister alleged that UNHCR had stipulated that such data can only be shared if authorities can provide assurance that refugees will not be arrested--a condition that the minister claimed showed UNHCR to be “not sincere” and which was upsetting his plans to vaccinate non-nationals. However, a spokeswoman for UNHCR denied that such a condition had been set, and that the agency had been working closely with the government since the start of the pandemic. She did, however, confirm that UNHCR advocates for no arrests of refugees and asylum seekers. “We have advocated with the Malaysian government to not arrest and detain refugees and asylum seekers, including those with expired UNHCR documents, especially because refugees have not been able to travel to UNHCR due to the restrictions under the MCO. Others are in the process of registration and do not yet have UNHCR documentation.”
The latest wave of raids appears to be part of a broad Malaysian policy trend towards migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers that views these non-citizens as transmitters of the virus. This trend was reflected in a recent Immigration Department post on Facebook, later deleted, which featured a military image accompanied by a caption which, translated, said: “Ethnic Rohingya migrants, your arrival is unwelcomed.” Commented Amnesty International: “The Malaysian government must explain why, especially in the time of a global pandemic, they have chosen to attack people in need. Refugees and migrants deserve to have their humanity upheld; Malaysians deserve a government that respects the rights and dignity of all.”
On 1 June, UNHCR expressed concern regarding vaccine shortages in the Asia-Pacific region, and a worrying increase in COVID-19 cases amongst refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia--as well as in Nepal, Iran, Pakistan, Thailand, and Indonesia.
- Free Malaysia Today, “Detention of Illegals to Ensure They Have Documents, Says Hamzah,” 3 June 2021, https://www.freemalaysiatoday.com/category/nation/2021/06/03/detention-of-illegals-to-ensure-they-have-documents-says-hamzah/
- J. Choong, “Malaysian Medical Group Condemns Govt Raid, Treatment of Migrant Workers in Cyberjaya in Fight Against Covid-19,” 9 June 2021, https://www.malaymail.com/news/malaysia/2021/06/09/malaysian-medical-group-condemns-govt-raid-treatment-of-migrant-workers-in/1980864
- A. Povera and H. N. Harun, “Khairy: We Need to Vaccinate Everyone in Malaysia,” New Straits Times, 9 June 2021, https://www.nst.com.my/news/nation/2021/06/697355/khairy-we-need-vaccinate-everyone-malaysia
- R. Ratcliffe, “Malaysia Struggling to Contain Sharp Rise in Covid Cases,” 31 May 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/may/31/malaysia-struggling-to-contain-sharp-rise-in-covid-cases
- E. Chin, “On Facebook, Immigration Department Endorses, Shares Post that Says Rohingya Migrants ‘Unwelcomed’ Here; Gets Chastised by Amnesty International,” Malay Mail, 11 June 2021, https://www.malaymail.com/news/malaysia/2021/06/11/on-facebook-immigration-department-endorses-shares-post-that-says-rohingya/1981486
- Amnesty International, “Malaysia: End Hypocrisy and Uphold the Rights of Refugees, Asylum-Seekers and Migrants,” 11 June 2021, https://www.amnesty.my/2021/06/11/malaysia-end-hypocrisy-and-uphold-the-rights-of-refugees-asylum-seekers-and-migrants/
- UN News, “Amidst COVID Surge, Asia-Pacific Region Needs ‘Immediate and Stronger Support,’” 1 June 2021, https://news.un.org/en/story/2021/06/1093162
- K. Tee, “With the National Covid-19 Vaccination Programme in Full Swing, Rohingyas Living in Malaysia Being Left Behind,” Malay Mail, 16 June 2021, https://www.malaymail.com/news/malaysia/2021/06/16/with-the-national-covid-19-vaccination-programme-in-full-swing-rohingyas-li/1982486
- M. N. Anis, “Why Set Conditions Before Sharing Refugee Data, Home Minister asks UNHCR,” The Star, 15 June 2021, https://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2021/06/15/why-set-conditions-before-sharing-refugee-data-home-minister-asks-unhcr
- P. Nambiar, “We Set No Conditions For Our Assistance, UNHCR Tells Hamzah,” Free Malaysia Today, 16 June 2021, https://www.freemalaysiatoday.com/category/nation/2021/06/16/we-set-no-conditions-for-our-assistance-unhcr-tells-hamzah/
25 February 2021
In the face of mounting international outrage, on 23 February Malaysian authorities proceeded with the deportation of 1,086 people to Myanmar, who included suspected refugees as well as many children (see the 18 February update below for additional details). The deportations took place as the COVID-19 pandemic has severely hurt the job prospects of migrants in Malaysia, effectively turning many documented workers into undocumented ones and potentially subject to immigration enforcement measures.
The mass deportation to Myanmar was in defiance of a court order to delay the move until a judicial review could be completed, a legal move that had been initiated by the Malaysian chapters of Amnesty International and Asylum Access, who provided evidence of refugees and asylum seekers being among the group. The deportation was carried out without assessing the people’s claims for asylum, or allowing the UN High Commissioner for Refugees access to the people while in detention before their deportation. Human Right Watch’s Asia Advisor commented: “Malaysia’s immigration authorities have shown a blatant disregard both for the basic rights of Myanmar nationals and an order by the Malaysian High Court. The immigration director-general has put lives at risk by sending people back to a country now ruled again by a military that has a long track record of punishing people for political dissent or their ethnicity.”
The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights also condemned the deportations, saying: “The Malaysian authorities in defiance of the court order breached the principle of non-refoulement, a rule of jus cogens, which absolutely prohibits the collective deportation of migrants without an objective risk assessment being conducted in each individual case. Children should not have been separated from their family, or returned without determining that their return is in their best interests.”
Responding to the concerns about the identity and status of the deportees, the Malaysian director-general of immigration claimed that none of the deportees were Rohingya refugees or asylum seekers. However, on 22 February the UN refugee agency claimed that at least up to six of the people to be deported were registered refugees, and 17 were children with at least one parent in Malaysia. Various refugee rights groups had also contended that approximately one hundred Muslim and Chin refugees were among the group initially slated for deportation. These refugees may have been among the group that were not ultimately deported, though Amnesty International reported as of 24 February that the identities of these people remained unclear. The High Court of Kuala Lumpur ruled on 24 February that they should not be sent back to Myanmar, extending the stay order until 9 March 2021.
The government claimed that all deportees voluntarily agreed to their return. However, it was unclear how many people in fact agreed, and under what conditions. There are concerns that many of the deportees may not have been informed about the political volatility in the country after the coup due to limited information being available during detention.
- A. Chew, “Fled Civil War in Myanmar, Lost Job to Coronavirus and Died in Malaysia: Young Mother’s Suicide Highlights Refugees’ Plight,” South China Morning Post, 24 February 2021, https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/politics/article/3122990/fled-civil-war-myanmar-lost-job-coronavirus-and-died-malaysia
- A. Ananthalakshmi and R. Latiff, “Defying Court Order, Malaysia Deports more than 1,000 Myanmar Nationals,” Reuters, 23 February 2021, https://www.reuters.com/article/uk-myanmar-politics-malaysia-idUKKBN2AN0A3
- A. Ananthalakshmi and R. Latiff, “Rights Groups Seek Malaysian Court Order to Stop Deportation of Myanmar Detainees,” Reuters, 22 February 2021, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-myanmar-politics-malaysia/rights-groups-seek-malaysian-court-order-to-stop-deportation-of-myanmar-detainees-idUSKBN2AM1D3
- Amnesty International, “High Court Orders Government to Halt Deportation of Remaining 114 Myanmar Nationals,” 24 February 2021, https://www.amnesty.my/2021/02/24/high-court-orders-government-to-halt-deportation-of-remaining-114-myanmar-nationals/
- Amnesty International Malaysia and Asylum Access Malaysia, “Joint Press Conference on the 23rd February Deportation of Myanmar Nationals,” 24 February 2021, https://www.facebook.com/watch/live/?v=475798673423631&ref=watch_permalink
- BBC, “Malaysia Deports Myanmar Nationals Despite Court Order,” 24 February 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-56178270
- France24, “Malaysia under Fire after Controversial Myanmar Deportation,” 24 February 2021, https://www.france24.com/en/live-news/20210224-malaysia-under-fire-after-controversial-myanmar-deportation
- Human Rights Watch, “Malaysia: Investigate Return of 1,086 Myanmar Nationals,” 24 February 2021, https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/02/24/malaysia-investigate-return-1086-myanmar-nationals
- Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), “Malaysia: UN Experts Appalled by Deportation of Migrants to Myanmar Despite Court Order,” 24 February 2021, https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=26790&LangID=E
- Twitter (Amnesty International Malaysia @AmnestyMy), 24 February 2021, https://twitter.com/AmnestyMy/status/1364524682125402119
- An immigration truck believed to be carrying Myanmar migrants from Malaysia back to their homeland (Getty Images, "Malaysia Deports Myanmar Nationals Despite Court Order," BBC, 24 February 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-56178270)
18 February 2021
Despite strong criticism from civil society organisations and the UN, Malaysian authorities are preparing to deport 1,200 people to Myanmar on 23 February even as the crisis in Myanmar spurred by the recent military coup there continues to deepen. Observers are particularly concerned that refugees and asylum seekers will be amongst those deported by Malaysia.
Deportees are due to be returned by military vessels, provided by Myanmar’s navy. Although Malaysia claims that the deportees are not refugees or asylum seekers, organisations such as Amnesty International have questioned the validity of such statements. They point to the fact that Malaysia has denied UNHCR access to immigration detention centres to identify asylum seekers and refugees since August 2019. “UNHCR must immediately have full access to the 1,200 people,” said the Executive Director of Amnesty International Malaysia in a statement on 18 February. “Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin must instruct the immigration department to work closely with UNHCR to ensure not a single person seeking asylum, refugee or anyone who may be at risk of human rights violations is forced to return to Myanmar. To do so would be in violation of the principle of non-refoulement, which applies to Malaysia as part of customary international law.”
Several refugee support organisations, including Myanmar Muslim Refugee Community and Alliance of Chin Refugees, have also confirmed that they have been contacted by members of the refugee groups they represent who are facing deportation, and claim that nearly 100 asylum seekers--including women and children--are amongst the group due to be deported. As of 18 February, UNHCR had yet to verify this claim.
Malaysia has faced condemnation for its roundups and detention of migrants during the COVID-19 pandemic (see 3 May Malaysia update on this platform), with reports indicating that many non-nationals are reluctant to come forwards for COVID-19 testing or treatment out of fear that they too will be arrested and detained (see 25 November Malaysia update). On 17 February, however, the minister responsible for immunisation coordination (Khairy Jamaluddin, Minister for Science and Technology) claimed that undocumented migrants would not be arrested if they presented themselves for vaccination. In a press briefing, the minister said, "We will work with civil society organisations to assist us in reaching out to undocumented foreigners with the assurance that they will not be detained. They can come forward freely.”
Despite the minister’s statement, a former deputy defence minister - Liew Chin Tong - believes that undocumented migrants and refugees will refuse to come forwards to receive the vaccine unless they receive stronger assurances from the immigration department and police themselves. He said: “It’s important that everyone is vaccinated, particularly those in high-risk groups such as migrant workers and refugees. But I don’t think the illegal migrants will come out for it. They will not trust Khairy’s words until and unless there is a rethink on the part of the Immigration Department, the police and all other security agencies.”
The country’s DAP Socialist Youth party has also questioned whether such promises will reassure non-nationals. The party’s deputy chairman argues that verbal promises from a minister unconnected to immigration will fail to reassure migrants and refugees, and instead urged the government to conduct a legalisation programme for undocumented foreigners parallel to its vaccination programme. “Some employers and migrant workers might be worried that the government might talk the talk but not walk the walk due to uncoordinated government responses,” he said.
- Amnesty International, “Malaysia: Deportation to Myanmar Puts Lives in Danger,” 18 February 2021, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2021/02/myanmar-deportation-malaysia-danger/
- R. Latiff and A. Ananthalakshmi, “Malaysia to Deport Myanmar Asylum-Seekers Next Week, Refugee Groups Say,” Reuters, 18 February 2021, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-myanmar-politics-malaysia/malaysia-to-deport-myanmar-asylum-seekers-next-week-refugee-groups-say-idUSKBN2AI19X
- Nikkei Asia, “Malaysia Sticks to Deporting Myanmar Detainees Despite UN Pressure,” 17 February 2021, https://asia.nikkei.com/Politics/International-relations/Malaysia-sticks-to-deporting-Myanmar-detainees-despite-UN-pressure
- R. Anand, “Malaysia Says Undocumented Migrants Will Not be Arrested During Mass Covid-19 Vaccination Programme,” The Straits Times, 17 February 2021, https://www.straitstimes.com/asia/se-asia/malaysia-says-undocumented-migrants-will-not-be-arrested-during-mass-vaccination
- I. Ariff, “Illegals Won’t Come Out For Jabs Unless Policy is Adjusted, Says Liew,” Free Malaysia Today, 18 February 2021, https://www.freemalaysiatoday.com/category/nation/2021/02/18/illegals-wont-come-out-for-jabs-unless-policy-is-adjusted-says-liew/
- E.S.M. Chin, “After Promise Not to Arrest Undocumented Migrants, DAP Youth Urges Govt to Run Legalisation Scheme to Solve Problem ‘Once and Forr All,’” MSN News, 17 February 2021, https://www.msn.com/en-my/news/national/after-promise-not-to-arrest-undocumented-migrants-dap-youth-urges-govt-to-run-legalisation-scheme-to-solve-problem-once-and-for-all/ar-BB1dM9LI?ocid=st
- Malaysian Immigration Officers usher Detainees into a Truck after a Raid in 2018, (Getty Images, "Malaysia sticks to deporting Myanmar detainees despite UN pressure," Nikkei Asia, 17 February 2021, https://asia.nikkei.com/Politics/International-relations/Malaysia-sticks-to-deporting-Myanmar-detainees-despite-UN-pressure)
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.