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Mass Escape from Malaysian Detention Centre Highlights Need for Reforms 

Rohingya refugees, who escaped from a Malaysian Immigration detention centre on Wednesday, are rearrested by police (Source: Al Jazeera -
Rohingya refugees, who escaped from a Malaysian Immigration detention centre on Wednesday, are rearrested by police (Source: Al Jazeera –

On 1 February, 131 (mainly Rohingya) refugees escaped from an immigration detention centre in the Malaysian state of Perak following reported riots in the facility, called the Bidor Temporary Immigration Depot. This is the second mass escape in two years from a Malaysian detention centre, which observers say underscores the inhumane conditions that immigration detainees face in Perak as well as in other detention centres across the country.

Escape Attempts

Late on 1 February, the group escaped the centre’s mens block after what authorities describe as a “riot” broke out. As of 7 February, 98 of those who escaped had been re-arrested and re-detained, and two had been killed in road accidents. A similar incident occurred in 2022, when 528 Rohingya refugees escaped from a detention facility in Penang state–six were killed as they tried to cross a highway, while the rest were re-arrested and re-detained. 

The day after the escape, Malaysia’s Immigration Director-General announced plans to split up Rohingya refugees into smaller groups, spread across detention centres on the Malaysian peninsula. According to him: “[Rohingya] can be aggressive. We don’t want too many of them in a single block so we are mixing them with detainees from other nationalities.” He also stated that authorities were planning to tighten security in immigration depots including, concerningly, the option of arming detention staff with weapons. 

Commenting on the case, UNHCR expressed its concern–and emphasised the importance of it being permitted to access immigration detention centres in order to “determine if there are individuals in need of international protection and to advocate for their release.” Since August 2019, the rights agency has been denied access to the country’s immigration detention “depots.” 

In response, Malaysia’s Home Ministry stated that it has “no issue” with permitting UNHCR access to immigration detention facilities. This would be an important and much needed development as lack of access to Malaysian immigration “depots” has been a critical human rights concern for years. 

Abysmal Conditions

Numerous civil society organisations have reported on the abysmal conditions that detained migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers face in Malaysia. As the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network, End Detention Network, and International Detention Coalition noted in a statement: “We see the repeated incidents of deaths and escapes from immigration depots as an indicators of injustices that need to be addressed humanely through reform.” 

The GDP has regularly drawn attention to the dire conditions in the country’s immigration depots, most recently in a submission to the Universal Periodic Review in 2023 with the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network (APRRN). The submission reported: 

“Detainees are exposed to severe overcrowding, inadequate nutrition, limited health care, and poor sanitation and hygiene levels. There are numerous reports of detainees being physically ill-treated, as well as experiencing verbal and psychological abuse. Recreational activities are not provided, and detainees are instead forced to sit in their cells all day long–with the exception of a short 30 minute break for exercise. Similarly, no play activities are provided for children.” 

Malaysia’s Immigration Act provides penalties for anyone who irregularly enters the country, legislation does not set a detention limit, and there are few administrative or judicial channels that immigration detainees can pursue to challenge their detention. As a result, large numbers of migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers are detained. On any given day, the country regularly has on average some 15,000 non-citizens, including children, victims of trafficking, and refugees, in detention. In May 2020 there were an estimated 13,000 immigration detainees; in April 2022, more than 17,000; and in July 2023, some 16,000. 

Exacerbating this is the fact that authorities regularly conduct raids in which they actively search for, arrest, and detain non-nationals. In just one week this January, plain-clothed officers reportedly conducted some 200 raids in Kuala Lumpur alone. According to information provided by immigration authorities, thousands of migrants and refugees were detained during just over two weeks during January. The New Strait Times reported on 20 January 2024, “The Immigration Department detained a total of 4,026 illegal immigrants in 870 enforcement operations throughout the country in the first 18 days of this year, said its director-general Datuk Ruslin Jusoh.  During the same period, he said the department also inspected a total of 9,169 foreigners and deported 1,497 illegal immigrants back to their respective countries, as well as arrested 42 employers for employing illegal immigrants.”

Often, Rohingya communities are targeted–despite the fact that Rohingya cannot be deported to Myanmar–leaving them stuck in indefinite detention limbo. The detention and prosecution of people fleeing war and persecution underscores the country’s lack of respect for fundamental human rights and humanitarian norms, and we reiterate our calls for the country to reform its Immigration Act to legally exempt asylum seekers and refugees from arrest, detention, and prosecution for irregular entry. 

In our joint UPR submission with APRRN on Malaysia, we included the following recommendations

  1. Establish fair and effective screening measures to identify all at-risk or vulnerable people and ensure that once they are identified that they are removed from immigration enforcement procedures and their care and case management is taken over by appropriate social welfare institutions.
  2. Ramp up the development of non-custodial alternatives to detention, focusing on housing in the community, to ensure that all detention decision-making procedures fully incorporate assessment of the viability of non-detention measures before a detention order is issued. 
  3. Impose a time limit on detention and ensure detainees have the ability to challenge the grounds of their detention before a court or other competent, independent and impartial authority.
  4. Provide all detainees with access to legal aid, and extend access to the domestic legal aid scheme to all non-citizens, regardless of nationality or status.
  5. Cease the immigration detention of children and provide appropriate non-custodial accommodation for children and their families, in line with the recommendations provided in the CRC/CMW General Comment No. 23/No.4.
  6. Cease the immigration detention of all victims of trafficking and provide necessary social and legal assistance, as well as protections from their traffickers.
  7. Develop a comprehensive legal and formal framework for the identification, protection and processing of refugees and asylum seekers, to provide them with due legal status and recognition in line with international standards.
  8. Reform the Immigration Act to legally exempt asylum seekers and refugees from arrest, detention, and prosecution for irregular entry.
  9. Take concrete measures to eradicate all forms of abuse of detainees. 

Conditions in Detention Malaysia Rohingya Refugee Crisis Universal Periodic Review