Immigration detention centres: The most 'hellish' place in Malaysia

20 Apr 2022 05:45pm
Over the decades' thousands of Rohingya refugees have escaped atrocities in their home country Myanmar to Malaysia
Over the decades' thousands of Rohingya refugees have escaped atrocities in their home country Myanmar to Malaysia

I am all for a reasonable respect for the rule of law, and I am all for lawful migration.

I totally understand how unmitigated migration would cause Malaysia and Malaysians a very serious amount of unwelcome problems. We are unlikely to be able to simply open our doors to every single person who wants to come to Malaysia.

All that said, it may be worthwhile to think about the fuller context of the recent riot and escape of detainees held in the immigration detention centre in Relau, Kedah.

Some Malaysians harbour feelings about migrants that can probably be best described as ‘hate’.

I think even these Malaysians however might temper their views somewhat if they truly understood what it is like to be held in a Malaysian detention centre.

One of my first jobs after graduating and coming home to Malaysia was with an NGO that did work in such detention centres.

A few years after that, I had the pleasure of being a guest of the government for a few days in a police lockup.

I thus have a passing familiarity of what it is like to be a detainee in Malaysia.

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The little I experienced however was truly nothing compared to what people who are held in immigration detention centres experience.

In fact, and I have thought about this for a while, it is quite possible that immigration detention centres are literally and in every sense of the word, the worst places that exist in the whole of Malaysia.

There are two reports that I will quote from below that illustrate this, and which seem to concur with my own personal experience - one is a report published by Amnesty International in 2010, and one is a news report from The Guardian from 2017.

I would also like to cite a very detailed posting from.Reddit, about conditions in Malaysian prisons, that serve as additional references and suggest a consistent pattern. Even if you read nothing else in this article, please at least skip to the end section, which contains direct quotes from these publications.

I believe there is a very simple logic as to why immigration detention centres are literally the worst places in the entire country - because the people we detain there are the least able to fight back or stand up for themselves.

I have worked on and thought about many people who suffer various types of misfortune and abuses in Malaysia, and there is probably no group of humans in Malaysia who are more powerless, more exploited, and more voiceless than these detainees.

I’m not here to argue that all migrants are angels, that somehow we owe them the sun and the moon, or that they should be treated like kings and queens.

I am only here to say that they are human beings, and deserve to be treated like human beings.

When Malaysians are oppressed - and they are often oppressed by the authorities - they often have family or loved ones who will try to stand up for them, speak up for them, and fight for them.

Migrants are often thousands of miles away from their closest family, in a foreign land with no one to help them or protect them.

Authorities know this, and often feel they have a free hand to do whatever they want to these migrants, and treat them however badly they see fit.

Worse yet, migrants are often victims of human trafficking - where there is a vicious cycle involving a revolving door of migrants, and powerful people on both sides of the border making financial profit every time people are moved across the border, into detention centres, and back across the border again to restart the cycle.

I do not condone violence of any sort, but hearing about these experiences, and about the type of conditions migrants are forced to live in, makes you understand why detainees might decide to riot.

I will close my article with verbatim quotes taken from the aforementioned sources: “Refugees describe death and despair in Malaysian detention centres” - The Guardian, 2017.

“At least two dozen refugees and asylum seekers have died in Malaysia immigration detention centres since 2015, the United Nations refugee agency has told the Guardian.

“Living in fetid, overcrowded cells, inmates are so severely deprived of basic necessities such as food, water, and medical care that the Malaysian national human rights commission described conditions as “torture-like”.

“Among a dozen recently-released refugees interviewed by the Guardian, everyone saw at least one inmate die, mostly of disease, but in some cases also due to physical abuse.

“They gave us only one small cup of water with our meals, otherwise we had to drink toilet water,” said Mouyura Begum, an 18-year-old Rohingya refugee detained for over a year at Belantik.

“Only when someone was about to die would the guards come. Otherwise, if we complained, or if we asked to go to the hospital, they beat us,” she said.

Malaysia’s home ministry this month revealed in parliament that 161 people died of “various diseases” in immigration detention between 2014-2016.

“There is a zeal to take undocumented people off the streets, but then there is a disconnect where there is not enough money or resources to put into the system to avoid torture-like conditions,” said Jerald Joseph, a commissioner at Malaysia’s national human rights commission (Suhakam).

One refugee said despite being registered as a person of concern with the UN refugee agency in Malaysia, he was arrested during an immigration raid and held at a juvenile detention facility where he was confined to an overcrowded cell, had to drink toilet water and contracted a skin rash that covered his body.

It is not uncommon for detainees to be confined to cramped cells 24 hours a day for their entire stay. In close quarters, disease spreads rapidly.

As one of the only organisations permitted inside the facilities, Suhakam said scabies was the most commonly reported illness, while pneumonia, tuberculosis, and leptospirosis — a bacterial disease often spread by rat urine — had led to inmate deaths.

“We had to sleep on the floor with our knees to our chest.” said a 19-year-old Mon refugee from Myanmar who was released from Sungai Petani juvenile detention in April.

Another refugee from Myanmar’s Kachin state who was held for eight months in Bukit Jalil said he saw a Sri Lankan inmate beaten to death.

“But they told us he died because he was sick,” he said. As a cell leader, the man had to inform guards when someone died; seven during his detention, he said.” Amnesty International Report, “There is a way out: Stop abuse of migrants detained in Malaysia”, 2010: Thousands of migrants, asylum-seekers and refugees are routinely arrested and kept in filthy and overcrowded conditions in detention centres across Malaysia. Many are held for months without access to lawyers and with no way of appealing against their detention.

Once in the centres, detainees lack proper health care, sufficient food and clean drinking water. Children under 18 are held with adults, and abuse by detention staff is rife. Poor detention conditions have led to serious illness, which in some cases have been fatal.

‘I have been here for the past 10 months and it has been very hard. There is very little food... There are no vegetables or fruit, and the food portions are too small. I... have gastric problems because I am always hungry. There are insects that are biting me, so much that my skin is always itchy and I am sick.’ - Ghulum, a 33-year-old man from Bangladesh, held in Lenggeng detention centre, July 2009.

‘We stay inside the whole time, stay in the block. No exercise, no sunshine.’ - Mairo, a Nigerian woman held in Semenyih detention centre.

‘I have rashes all over my body, and there are blood suckers in the wood [floor], where we sleep.’ a man at Lenggeng detention centre “Here we have dirty water. I got sick with diarrhoea from the water. They refused to call my family or local doctor. They just want to keep us here. I had diarrhoea three times. The water we use to wash is also unclean.” - Shamim, detained in the women’s wing of Semenyih detention centre.

“Detainees never receive fruit or vegetables. Similar accounts of inadequate or rotten food were given in both KLIA and Semenyih detention centres. A young woman from Zimbabwe reported that the fish provided to detainees in KLIA Immigration Depot was often rotten.

NATHANIEL TAN is a strategic communications consultant.

Twitter: @NatAsasi, Email: [email protected] #BangsaMalaysia #NextGenDemocracy.