In the early hours of 20 April, over 500 Rohingya refugees, including 97 women, 294 men and 137 children, escaped from a detention centre in Sungai Bakap.
It was later confirmed that seven of those who fled were killed tragically in a traffic accident, including three young children.
Over the following days, at least 467 people were re-detained, and there is a continuing effort by government authorities to find and arrest the remaining refugees who fled.
As members of the international human rights community, we the undersigned are deeply concerned by this heartbreaking loss of life, and we urge the Malaysian government to conduct an immediate, thorough and independent inquiry into the underlying circumstances and detention conditions which led to such severe levels of human desperation and prompted an escape attempt by so many.
It is reported that a large number of Rohingya refugees are held indefinitely in immigration detention centres in Malaysia, without the possibility of release. This has been compounded by the Malaysian government refusing UN refugee agency (UNHCR) access to detention centres in order to conduct refugee status determination processes since August 2019.
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Home Minister Hamzah Zainudin has stated that refugees held at the Sungai Bakap detention centre have been detained for over two years and cannot be deported.
The deprivation of liberty of people and families seeking safety and asylum is a serious concern for us and is a fundamental violation of human rights. The impact of detention on mental, physical and emotional health has been extensively researched and consistently shows that people, especially those who have previously experienced traumatic events, face high levels of mental health challenges as a result of being detained.
Further, ample evidence proves that the severity of anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress that a person experiences is closely linked to the length of time they have spent in immigration detention.
As of 26 April, the Malaysian Immigration director general, Khairul Dzaimee Daud, reported that there were 17,634 migrants in immigration detention centres nationwide, including 1,528 children.
The Ministry of Home Affairs has also further reported 208 recorded deaths in immigration detention between 2018 and 15 February 2022, citing Covid, septic shock, tuberculosis, severe pneumonia, organ failure, lung infections, heart complications, dengue, diabetes and breathing difficulties, among others.
We strongly urge the government of Malaysia to:
- Carry out a comprehensive review of the current policies and practices of immigration detention centres in Malaysia to ensure they are in line with international legal standards
- Ensure full transparency of the investigation and review, and make the process and results available and accessible to the public
- Proceed with immediate implementation of the alternatives-to-detention pilot officially launched in February 2022 and ensure Rohingya children are included within the scope of the pilot
- Simultaneously, take immediate steps to enact legal and policy changes to ensure that children are no longer detained for migration-related reasons, given that only five children are to be released at any time under the alternatives-to-detention pilot
- Follow through on the pledges made to uphold human rights, in order to secure its seat on the UN Human Rights Council, for example, “to implement policies and legislations that promote and protect the rights of the most vulnerable communities”, which indisputably include refugees, people seeking asylum and stateless persons, especially women and children
- Immediately release all persons registered with the UNHCR from immigration detention and grant the UNHCR access to all immigration detention centres to continue registration of persons of concern
- Grant access to Doctors Without Borders Malaysia and other NGOs to immigration detention centres to ensure detainees have access to medical treatment and support services
Malaysia lags behind its closest neighbours in Asean, specifically Thailand and Indonesia, who have released hundreds of children from immigration detention into community-based care since 2018.
Further, in Indonesia, the local government in Aceh has set up a taskforce to manage emergency response. These processes link refugee communities to support from the International Organization for Migration, the UNHCR, the Geutanyoe Foundation, the Jesuit Refugee Service Indonesia and other organisation until the national government advises which cities they will be transferred to for sustainable and ongoing accommodation and support.
We call upon the government of Malaysia to respond to this human tragedy with compassionate leadership and integrity, and commit to protecting the rights of refugees and people seeking asylum in Malaysia, as committed to in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (Cedaw) and the Asean Declaration on the Rights of Children in the Context of Migration.
The government of Malaysia must reconsider its current policies and systems of immigration detention, which are arbitrary, harmful, costly and ineffective. Instead, it should develop and implement non-custodial alternatives to detention, particularly for people in vulnerable situations, such as children, ethnic and religious minorities, women, gender-diverse and LGBTI+ people.
It is time for Malaysia to step up to its international commitments, and we stand prepared to support the government and other civil society organisations in developing systems and frameworks for alternatives to detention, and ensuring that nothing like this ever happens again.
International Detention Coalition
Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network
Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights
Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (Forum-Asia)