More than 149 Indonesians have died due to gross mistreatment in Malaysia’s detentions centers over the past 18 months, a coalition of Indonesian non-government organizations said in a report published last week.
According to a detailed article about the Indonesian-language report by Hadi Azmi of the South China Morning Post, the report by the Coalition of Sovereign Migrant Workers (KBMB) found a pattern of gross mistreatment, malign neglect, and violent treatment at an immigration facility in the state of Sabah in eastern Malaysia.
“Various forms of punishment and inhumane treatment, even torture occur in immigration detention centers which are closed institutions, isolated institutions,” Abu Mufakhir, a member of the KBMB fact-finding team, told the BBC’s Indonesian service this week.
The report, which was based on interviews with Indonesian nationals who were deported back to their home country, focuses on the Tawau Immigration Detention Center in the state of Sabah. There the KBMB alleges that up to 260 people – including children – were housed in windowless cells about the size of a badminton court, each equipped with just three toilet bowls.
The astonishing death toll noted in the report was based on data provided to KBMB by Malaysia’s embassy in Jakarta, which claimed that most of the deaths were the result of COVID-19 and other serious illnesses.
Among the 149 deaths noted in the KBMB’s report was that of a detainee named Nathan, a forty-something with Down’s syndrome. The report alleges that officers at the immigration center left him to die by offering no health support aside from paracetamol, despite him being sick for an extended period.
According to KBMB, this neglect was typical. “All the deportants we interviewed said that detainees would only be taken to the hospital when they were in a very serious condition, ‘Wait for death, then take them to the hospital’,” the report states, according to the BBC report.
Others allegedly died directly at the hands of immigration center staff. Such was the case of Suardi Bin Samsudin, an inmate at the Tawau Immigration Detention Center who, according to interviews with his former fellow inmates, “was beaten by jail officers in front of other inmates” and later died from his injuries, Abu said.
Abu said during the report’s launch that the creation of inhumane conditions was a deliberate tactic to dissuade people from seeking asylum in Malaysia, despite this being legal under international law. “They create these conditions to create terror, so when the detainees are released they will go back and tell others about it,” he said, according to Azmi’s article in the SCMP. Malaysia, like eight of its neighbors in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), has not signed the 1951 Refugee Convention.
The cramped, unsanitary conditions in Malaysia’s migration detention centers have long attracted the attention of the United Nations and domestic rights monitors. In 2017, Reuters published a report claiming that more than 100 foreign nationals had died in the country’s immigration detention facilities over the previous two years. The report was based on documents from the government-funded National Human Rights Commission.
More recently, six Rohingya asylum seekers, including two children, died in April while attempting to cross a six-lane highway after a riot and mass breakout from a temporary immigration detention center in the northern state of Kedah. The riot, which saw 528 Rohingya detainees flee the facility, was allegedly prompted by the appalling conditions inside the center.
“Depriving individuals of their liberty in order to deter others from entering the country is unlawful, inhumane, and ineffective,” the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR said in a statement following the tragedy. “Seeking asylum is not an unlawful act.”
Whether the latest revelations nudge Malaysia’s Ministry of Home Affairs in the direction of a more humane and less punitive approach to asylum seekers and undocumented migrants remains to be seen.
Historically, Malaysia has not responded well to criticisms of its immigration policy. In mid-2020, after Al-Jazeera aired an explosive report about Malaysia’s treatment thousands of undocumented migrant workers arrested during raids in areas under tight COVID-19 lockdowns, police began investigating its journalist for potential sedition, defamation, and violations of the country’s Communications and Multimedia Act. (The journalists were never charged.) In its April statement, UNHCR revealed that it had not been granted access to Malaysian immigration detention centers since August 2019, due to its criticisms of the conditions there.
None of this creates any real grounds for hope that the revelations will prompt short-term improvements in the conditions of Malaysia’s immigration system. As Josef Benedict of the CIVICUS Monitory asked on Twitter, “How many deaths in detention will it take [the Ministry of Home Affairs] until the impunity ends and the immigration department is held to account?”