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Malaysia’s migrant hell-holes

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Angeline Loh looks at Malaysia’s ‘migrant hell-holes’ – the immigration detention camps, where evidence of cruel, degrading and inhuman conditions is overwhelming. 


Many ordinary Malaysians had never glimpsed and could not imagine the inside of an immigration detention camp (IDC) or how it feels to be detained in conditions in which migrant detainees are imprisoned – until recently.

A majority of us became aware of the existence of such places in our country over the past couple of years, with the rising number of scattered media reports of riots, death and disease occurring within these walled and barbed-wired environs. These prisons for foreigners caught undocumented – and labelled ‘illegal immigrants’ – on our territory frequently seemed of none or little concern to the average Malaysian.

Little did we realise the conditions in which these detainees struggle to survive, being criminalised for the administrative immigration offence of being undocumented under Section 6 of the Immigration Act 1959. A few may not survive these camps; for them freedom may only be attained when the soul leaves the body.

With the out-break of the AH1N1 pandemic, the IDCs were forgotten. The mainstream media was preoccupied with the influx of foreigners and returning Malaysians seen as possible carriers of the disease into the country, particularly those arriving from Mexico and the United States where the outbreak was first deemed to originate (http://www.malaysian insurance.info/?p=821 “AH1N1 … Did the government declare it as a disease requiring quarantine by law?”) . Later, arrivals from other countries were added to the suspect list when the AH1N1 flu became a global pandemic.

Responding to this situation, the Health Ministry concentrated efforts in screening and quarantining those exhibiting the suspect symptoms. Wide publicity was given to airport entry points where health-monitoring teams were screening in-coming passengers from overseas destinations. The media hype did not lack a somewhat xenophobic flavour with television footage frequently zooming in on newly-arrived foreigners.

There seemed to be an overzealous pre-occupation with airports at the expense of other entry points into the country. The Health Ministry appeared to have forgotten to place screening and monitoring checks at railway, sea, or road immigration checkpoints in border areas. There were no news reports of monitoring measures being taken at these places. Body temperature checks with ordinary medical thermometers were carried out by some long haul bus operators.

When the pandemic spread within the country, starting with universities and schools, and turning crowded places into danger zones, over-crowded IDCs and prisons were not classified as such. In these places extra vigilance of hygiene, disease monitoring and access to medical treatment should be given priority. This neglect may be due to the remote location of the IDCs, where migrant detainees are in effect “quarantined” from the rest of the population in the surrounding locality. Yet, movements of groups of people in and out of prisons from urban and other areas in the country would necessitate close health monitoring of contagious diseases that could easily spread within the camp and in the surrounding locality.

Breeding grounds for dangerous diseases

These overcrowded places with the worst reputation for cleanliness and hygiene, let alone access to adequate medical treatment, did not figure in the government’s efforts to stem the spread of AH1N1 or any other possible contagion such as tuberculosis and meningitis. (Amnesty International Report 2004)

•    The first reports in May 2009 of the deaths of two Burmese asylum seekers due to Leptospirosis at the Juru Immigration Detention Centre (NGO press release: ‘Immigration detention centres: How many more must die?’ 25 September 2009) came as no surprise except for the fact that these deaths were not due to AH1N1.

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This life-threatening leptospirosis disease caused by the contamination of food and/or water with animal urine claimed the lives of six more Burmese detainees in an undisclosed detention centre (New Straits Times, 25 September 2009).

•    In the intervening period between the two incidents of leptospirosis deaths, more deaths and hospitalisations were reported. In a 25 September 2009 joint NGO press statement, it was revealed that earlier in the month, on 3 September, a Burmese detainee at the KLIA IDC was reported to have died on 29 August “due to an unknown illness”. Six other Burmese detainees had shown similar symptoms and were hospitalised at the Putrajaya General Hospital.

•    In August, a Togolese detainee died in the same detention centre from AH1N1. /(NGO Joint PR, 25 September 2009). In April the same year, a Migration Working Group Report revealed that two detainee deaths occurred at Lenggeng IDC, one being a Bangladeshi migrant worker who died after allegedly being tortured by Malaysian police and another, a Liberian detainee, found dead due to undisclosed or unknown causes  (Joint NGO PR, 25 September 2009). The Minister of Home Affairs later stated the cause of death as Rectoviral infection, a contagious disease (Pemberitahuan Pertanyaan Bagi Jawab Lisan Dewan Rakyat, Rujukan 2098). Another death of a Myanmar woman migrant detainee at the KLIA Immigration Detention Centre was disclosed on 12 December 2009 . The cause of death in this case remains unknown and letters to the Health Ministry by concerned NGOs have received no response (C. Hector, 12 December 2009).

•    An unreported case of the death of a Burmese woman detainee in the Belantek Sik IDC in Kedah, was disclosed to the author at the end of September. Her death was said to be due to delayed access to medical treatment, according to fellow detainees who have since been deported to Myanmar.*

What had apparently happened (according to sources*) was the deceased was experiencing stomach pains the day before and fellow detainees had reported this to camp officials requesting them to take her immediately to the hospital. The report was made in the middle of the night and camp officials allegedly neglected to make an emergency call to the hospital to send an ambulance. It is claimed that camp officials waited until lunch-time the next day to call the hospital emergency services. By the time, she was transferred to the Alor Setar Hospital and admitted, the woman was in a serious condition and died shortly after admission.*

Reports alleging inadequate medical treatment and restricted access to treatment have surfaced from Belantek Sik IDC. It has also been revealed that camp officials confiscate medication from inmates diagnosed to be suffering from ailments like diabetes and hypertension on the basis that medicines are not allowed in the IDC. This was the reason given to a detainee who, suffering from such ailments was carrying his medication with him when searched by camp wardens.*

Juru IDC detainees have also complained of incidences where paracetamol has allegedly been indiscriminately prescribed for all illnesses suffered by migrant inmates in the detention camp.*

Moreover, although men and women are imprisoned separately in the IDC, they are afforded virtually no privacy even when having a bath. Women and children are usually housed together. Pregnant women, mothers with babies newly delivered inside the IDC or arrested nearly immediately after delivery are not given any facilities for confinement or post-natal care. There are also no facilities or provisions for young children or babies detained with their mothers in the camps (Joint press statement: “Deaths and conditions of detention of migrants and refugees”,  24 April 2009 MWG-Jump).

The spread of fungal skin infections is rife in IDCs where the squalid, dirty conditions and the difficulty in obtaining soap, detergent or any kind of disinfectant to maintain personal and environmental cleanliness worsens the condition.*

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(Note: * Facts gathered from interviews with ex-IDC detainees)

Food a dog wouldn’t eat

The food supplied to inmates consists of a small portion of rice, a thumb-sized piece of meat or fish, and a minuscule portion of vegetables with a kind of watery gravy. At some IDCs, detainees are given ‘tea breaks’ consisting of a few biscuits and watery tea. There are complaints that the food is often stale or “going-off”. It was revealed that detainees in Belantek Sik IDC were given beef curry that was already “fermenting”. As a result of eating this bad food, there was an outbreak of diarrhoea amongst the 800 or so detainees who could only use four toilets that were in working order out of eight in their section of the camp.*

In a recent video report by Al Jazeera (YouTube, 28 November 2009), detainees expressed their revulsion for their diet, which a detainee described as food that “even a dog would not eat”. The report also said that the food “stank: with a strong odour. Food trays were filthy, encrusted with a ‘black substance’ possibly due to them being poorly washed and re-used with the dried remains of previous meals still sticking to them.

Ex-detainees and some of their friends interviewed by the author revealed that those visiting inmates in the IDCs were not allowed to bring food, medicines, bath soap and other basic necessities from outside for the detainees. They were allegedly charged a flat rate of RM50 for any item/s they had to order from the detention centre provision store, for the detainee they intended to give these supplies to. Whether or not the detainees received the supplies ordered by their visitors would most likely be left to chance. It would depend on which IDC officer one was dealing with. There was speculation that the provisions ordered and paid for may not reach their intended recipients.*

Corruption tends to flourish especially in places where its victims are prevented from voicing their grievances or having any notice taken of their complaints and difficulties. Perpetrators bank on the fact that these people are considered criminals and outcasts, apart from being foreigners for whom there will be no public sympathy.

Will the public allow themselves to be so insulted, by having their capacity for compassion and humanity under-estimated? Apart from this, how will they react to the knowledge that health care and hygiene should be given priority in such facilities and that all detainees in correctional facilities have a basic and fundamental right to health? Denial of the right to health is a human rights violation and is not part of the sentence served.

Human being treated like animals

As a consequence of overcrowding, bad sanitation, insufficient and bad food, inadequate treatment and restricted access to medical facilities, the spread of diseases in these IDCs and prisons may be more rampant than the public is led to believe. This is due to the secrecy in which these isolated places of incarceration are still shrouded. The glimpses we have had so far have revealed squalor, filth and sordidness in ‘corrals’ that appear more suited to holding animals rather than human beings. In one such IDC, these ‘corrals’ and ‘cages’ said to have a holding capacity of 1,200 were instead crammed with about 1,400 human beings (Al-Jazeera video, 28 November 2009).

That over-crowding, squalor and degradation rule in IDCs is nothing new. The Government has been aware of this for a considerable length of time; yet change is slow and progress appears negligible. In a press statement on 24 April 2008 , Suhakam Commissioner N Siva Subramaniam described the situation in IDCs such as Lenggeng camp as “like a time-bomb and we must take a serious view of this”(Bernama).

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He acknowledged that conditions in other IDCs e.g. Pekan Nanas, Semenyih, and Macap Umboo, were “critical and there was urgent need to improve the infrastructure and facilities”. The main reason for the commissioner’s visit to Lenggeng at that time was the outbreak of a riot in the camp, where the administration building and fencing had been reportedly destroyed by 60 male detainees. He confirmed over-crowding as one of the causes of detainee frustration that could lead to incidences like these. (http://www.asiapacificforum.net/news/malaysia-detention-camps-must-be-improved.html)

In the same public statement, the Suhakam Commissioner said discussions “on ways to improve the infrastructure and efficiency of the country’s 17 detention camps for illegals” would be held with the Home Ministry (Ibid). Up to now, nothing much had been said or heard regarding improvements to infrastructure in IDCs with no hint of improvement in detention centres to eliminate these shocking and dehumanising conditions.

However, in reply to a Parliamentary question raised by Batu MP Tian Chua on 9 November 2009, the Home Affairs Minister listed eight measures that were being taken to improve hygiene and safety conditions in IDCs. Amongst these measures were that detainees health complaints would be quickly referred to government health clinics, clean and better quality food would be served to detainees in all IDCs in the country and that detainees and IDC staff would be given immunisation against diseases like Hepatitis and H1N1. Rat poison would also be put around IDCs to control occurrences of  Leptospirosis (Pemberitahuan Pertanyaan Bagi Jawab Lisan Dewan Rakyat, Rujukan 2098.) The effectiveness of these efforts remains to be seen.


The scattered reports (put together in this article) of deaths and the inhuman conditions in which immigration detainees are imprisoned  reveal a horrific picture of IDCs in this country. Yet, the glimpses are only the tip of a very black and foul iceberg floating in the sea of humanity within our country. Evidence of the cruelty, degradation and inhumanity perpetrated in these migrant holding places is unspeakable and overwhelming. Criminal acts of sadism, rape, sexual abuse (Amnesty International Report 2004) and other acts of violence against man, woman or child committed within the walls of these hell-holes may go unpunished or unaccounted for as migrant detainees may be deported or unscrupulously trafficked before any report or investigation can be made.(Ibid)*

Instead, this debasement and inhuman treatment are justified by criminalising people whose only offence may be to enter our territory without identification documents or legally recognised travel documents. To turn a blind-eye to the deplorable conditions they are subjected to is to condone a crime against humanity. Can we live with this?

Angeline Loh is an Aliran exco member with a special interest in the rights of migrants and refugees. This article includes information gleaned from interviews with ex-IDC detainees who prefer to remain anonymous for safety reasons.

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4 Mar 2018 5.08pm

Some detainees are tourists detained at airports for overstaying by just a few days. Many are not themselves to blame, just victims of unfortunate circumstances. Miss a flight for any reason, reschedule for a date shortly after your visa expires and you will most likely end up in one of those Hellholes.
Why not just take the fine from them and let them go on their way?
If Malaysia hates them that much, bar them from re-entry.

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