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UN sounds alarm over refugee deaths in Malaysia

Rohingya migrants describe abuse and despair in detention centers

UN sounds alarm over refugee deaths in Malaysia

Rohingya migrants from Myanmar ride in a truck as they arrive at a naval base in Langkawi, Malaysia in this May 14, 2015 file photo. The U.N. refugee agency has voiced concern over the number of migrant deaths in Malaysian detention centers. (Photo by Manan Vatsyayana/AFP)

May 19, 2017

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At least two dozen refugees and asylum seekers have died in Malaysia immigration detention centers since 2015, according to the United Nations refugee agency.

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," The Guardian newspaper reports.

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.

"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.

All but two of the 24 "people of concern" confirmed dead by the U.N. were Myanmar nationals. The toll, based on data provided by Malaysian authorities, may represent only a fraction of refugee fatalities in 17 immigration detention centers.

"UNHCR is informed of the death of a detained person of concern when we make a request pertaining to that person," said Richard Towle, UNHCR's country representative in Malaysia.

Former detained refugees said they spent months, even years, petitioning guards to notify UNHCR of their whereabouts — the only way to get their refugee status verified and avoid deportation. The average lock up period is 16 months.

"These deaths are absolutely preventable," said Amy Smith, executive director of Fortify Rights. "The fix is very easy — Malaysia just has to stop treating refugees like hardened criminals."

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