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Persistent Reports of Severe Human Rights Violations in Malaysia’s Immigration Detention Centres 

Undocumented migrants detained after an immigration raid in Kuala Lumpur (Source: Human Rights Watch,
Undocumented migrants detained after an immigration raid in Kuala Lumpur (Source: Human Rights Watch,

Malaysia has been repeatedly criticised for having one of the world’s most abusive and punitive immigration detention systems. Yet the government continues to fail to address the international community’s recommendations to protect vulnerable migrants and refugees in the country, as the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) recently reported in a scathing report.

UN Body Decries Abusive Treatment of Women and Girls

In early June, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) released a series of recommendations (“concluding observations”) concerning Malaysia’s immigration practices, including the abusive treatment that girls and women suffer in the country’s detention centres. The Committee noted in particular Malaysia’s failure to implement reforms aimed at protecting refugee and asylum-seeking women and girls, stating that the measures adopted “fall short of a legal and policy framework to protect, regularize the status of, manage, and process the protection claims of asylum-seekers and refugees in the State party and are instead geared towards their resettlement to third countries or their return to countries of origin” (paragraph 46).

Concerning detention measures, the Committee found it unacceptable that “refugee and asylum-seeking women and girls continue to be prosecuted for immigration-related offences and may be deported or detained indefinitely at immigration detention centres, exposing them to a risk of abuse and sexual and gender-based violence upon return to their country of origin or in detention centres in the State party.” 

The Committee also highlighted Malaysia’s continued failure to provide access to detention facilities as well as its failure to provide numerous basic essentials inside the centres: “The Committee is further concerned that since 2019, UNHCR has not been granted access to immigration detention centres to meet with refugees and asylum-seekers despite assurances by the State party that UNHCR would be able to do so with the consent of the Immigration Department. In addition, it notes with concern that due to the lack of a legal and administrative framework, refugee and asylum-seeking women and girls continue to be denied the right to work and face restrictions in accessing education, health, social protection, and legal assistance.”

Long-Standing Concerns

Observers have long decried Malaysia’s laws for failing to limit the length of immigration detention as well as its policy of criminalising irregular entry or stay in the country, without distinguishing between refugees, asylum seekers, victims of trafficking or undocumented migrants. The country, like other Southeast Asian nations, is not a signatory to the UN Convention on Refugees and UNHCR has been denied access to immigration detention facilities since 2019, making monitoring a critical issue.

In March 2024, shortly after the Global Detention Project’s previous update on Malaysia, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released an in-depth report highlighting the impact of the country’s detention system, disclosing that “The Malaysian government is detaining about 12,000 migrants and refugees, including 1,400 children, in conditions that put them at serious risk of physical abuse and psychological harm.”

HRW’s report–which includes interviews with former immigration detainees and officials, detainees’ families, lawyers and humanitarian aid staff–reiterates serious concerns over the treatment of migrants in Malaysian detention facilities, an issue that the GDP and the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network (APRRN) had also drawn attention to in their 2023 joint submission to the Universal Periodic Review. “Malaysia’s degrading and abusive immigration detention system denies migrants and refugees rights to liberty, health, and due process,” says Shayna Bauchner, Asia researcher at HRW.

The HRW report estimates that since May 2020, Malaysia has detained over 45,000 irregular migrants, coercing them into living “a bare and brutal existence.” The so-called “depots” are dominated by limited access to food and water, undignified hygienic conditions, strict and temperamental rules, and recurrent threats of severe punishments. “We would get beaten when we asked for more food, took an extra mug of water to shower, or asked for a blanket for the cold,” said a Rohingya refugee formerly detained at Belantik Immigration Detention Centre.

An Indonesian woman detained at Tawau Immigration Depot recalls that during long-lasting routinary roll calls, “If we made any noise, we would be punished, like hanging from the wall, pushups, squats, walking like ducks, or standing under the hot sun for hours.” Further testimonies inform about several episodes of torture and harassment, which led to hundreds of deaths recorded in recent years in Malaysian detention facilities.

A System that Leads to Increased Vulnerability and Harm

In early 2024, news agencies reported that the Malaysian government was ramping up crackdowns on irregular migration, undertaking hundreds of raids in Kuala Lumpur in the first week of 2024 alone, which targeted foreign workers without proper documentation and their employers. In response to criticism over the raids, Malaysia’s Home Minister admitted in a statement that “about 80% of detainees were properly documented,” making their arrests unjustified. 

Researchers have documented how Malaysia’s immigration policies have made it increasingly difficult for foreign nationals to obtain legal documentation, refugee status, or citizenship. Reportedly, the government has attempted to amend constitutional provisions that automatically grant citizenship to abandoned children found on Malaysian territory who have no known parents or any other citizenship. Many of such unaccompanied minors are held in immigration depots under precarious conditions and at serious risk of abuse.  

Numerous human rights watchdogs, in addition to the CEDAW Committee, have pointed to a persistent lack of legal framework for refugees, which leaves vulnerable migrants, such as undocumented women, exposed to the risk of arrest and detention if they need medical care. Under Malaysia’s immigration law, public health professionals are required to report undocumented patients to the authorities, making healthcare costly and dangerous for migrants. “I didn’t have money to go to a doctor, so I had to eat less for five months to save enough money to get a medical check,” said a Myanmar pregnant refugee to Al Jazeera.

Arbitrary detention Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women Conditions in Detention Human Rights Malaysia