On the evening of 1 February, 131 individuals – the majority Rohingya refugees aged between 17 and 35 – escaped from the Bidor temporary immigration depot in Perak, Malaysia.
As of Thursday morning, 8 February, it is known that at least two have since lost their lives in traffic accidents and at least 86 people have been re-detained.
This incident comes less than two years after 528 refugees escaped a detention centre in Sungai Bakap, resulting in seven deaths.
Conditions in detention are known to be severe and life-threatening. Putrid conditions, skin diseases, respiratory infections, malaria and tuberculosis are often reported.
In 2022 alone, 153 people lost their lives in immigration detention in Malaysia, including 25 women and seven children.
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As of December 2023, 12,435 people were being held in immigration detention centres nationwide.
A significant number of those detained are children. Data from September 2023 found that 1,382 children were in immigration detention while earlier data indicated 679 children who were unaccompanied or separated from their parents or guardians.
This inhumane situation has been exacerbated by a dramatic increase in raids – 870 raids conducted in the first 20 days of January 2024 – leading to a high number of arrests of Rohingya and other refugees and undocumented migrants.
The government has acknowledged that a large number of Rohingya refugees are being held indefinitely in immigration detention centres as they cannot be deported.
Despite this, raids continue to occur.
Further compounding the situation, the Malaysian government has denied the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) access to detention since 2019, thus barring refugee status determination and registration from taking place.
We are deeply concerned about Malaysia’s harmful immigration detention practices and conditions, which have led to severe levels of human desperation, repeated escape attempts and the loss of life.
There is increasing global consensus that immigration detention is not a viable and effective solution, and alternatives urgently need to be implemented.
Therefore, we strongly urge the Malaysian government to:
Implement clear protection policies for refugees, people seeking asylum and irregular migrants
- Cease the immigration detention of Rohingya, other refugee groups and irregular migrants. Significant research has demonstrated that immigration detention is:
- deeply harmful to individuals, families and communities
- a clear violation of child rights
- not an effective deterrence measure
- a significant financial cost to Malaysian taxpayers and the Malaysian economy and
- legally unfounded as there is no basis to deport stateless communities such as the Rohingya
- Develop a comprehensive legal and policy framework for the recognition and protection of all refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia, while they await permanent resettlement. The framework must be in line with international human rights standards and include:
- the right to seek asylum
- legal status
- the right to stay
- basic rights such as work, education, healthcare and access to justice
- Release all children 18 years and under from all forms of immigration detention into alternatives-to-detention programmes that focus on holistic case management, family and community placement
Address conditions in detention that lead to people taking desperate measures
- Act immediately on the deputy law and institutional reform minister’s call for an investigation, ensuring that the process and results are made available and accessible to the public
- Immediately release all persons registered with the UNHCR from immigration detention and grant UNHCR access to all immigration detention centres to continue registration of persons of concern
- Exempt Rohingya and other refugee communities from arrest and detention, noting that they are subjected to prolonged and indefinite detention due to removal orders which cannot be carried out under Malaysian immigration law
Step up to regional and international commitments
- Uphold pledges made as a member of the UN Human Rights Council, such as “to implement policies and legislations that promote and protect the rights of the most vulnerable communities” and to “improve the social service system for children through […], Alternative to Detention pilot project for unaccompanied and separated children at immigration centers” both of which indisputably include refugees, people seeking asylum and stateless persons, especially women and children
- Implement community-based alternatives to child immigration detention, in line with commitments to the Asean Declaration on the Rights of the Child in the Context of Migration and its accompanying regional plan of action
- Accept and implement all recommendations pertaining to refugee protection made by fellow UN member states during Malaysia’s recent review session of the Universal Periodic Review in January 2024, notably:
- To develop a comprehensive legal and policy framework for the recognition and protection of all refugees and asylum seekers, which includes the right to seek asylum, legal status and basic rights such as work, education and healthcare within the next three years (the UK, Canada, Finland, Gambia, Germany, Indonesia)
- To ratify the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol (the US, Afghanistan, Argentina, Brazil, Burkina Faso, France, Luxembourg, Mexico, New Zealand, the Republic of Korea, Spain)
- To guarantee the international principle of non-refoulement (Afghanistan, Argentina)
- To end arbitrary arrest and detention of children refugees and undertake legislative reform of immigration detention (Ireland, Mexico, Spain, Cabo Verde)We call upon the government of Malaysia to commit to protecting the rights of refugees, people seeking asylum and irregular migrants in Malaysia to prevent another disastrous event such as this breakout.
The government of Malaysia must reconsider its current policies and systems of immigration detention, which are arbitrary, harmful, costly and ineffective.
Instead, it should focus efforts and resources to develop and implement legal protection frameworks and non-custodial alternatives to detention.
We stand ready to support the government in developing these systems and processes, to ensure that incidents like this never happen again.
Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network
End Detention Network (Malaysia)
International Detention Coalition