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Malaysia denies abusing refugees, migrants

About 12,000 migrants and refugees, including 1,400 children, are detained in 20 detention centers, says Human Rights Watch
Bangladeshi and Rohingya migrants from Myanmar ride in a truck after arriving at a naval base in Langkawi to be transferred to a mainland immigration center in Malaysia in this file image.

Bangladeshi and Rohingya migrants from Myanmar ride in a truck after arriving at a naval base in Langkawi to be transferred to a mainland immigration center in Malaysia in this file image. (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)

Published: March 13, 2024 08:16 AM GMT
Updated: March 13, 2024 08:35 AM GMT

The Malaysian government has denied that migrants and refugees have been abused in its detention centers as claimed in a Human Rights Watch (HWR) report last week.

Home Minister Saifuddin Nasution Ismail questioned the credibility of the report, saying the allegations were baseless.

“They could not present one iota of evidence. And yet they went on to lecture the whole world,” the minister said in parliament, Free Malaysia Today reported March 12.

He said the rights group was unable to substantiate their claims when questioned by a parliamentary select committee on human rights, elections and institutional reforms soon after the report was released.

The report said that detainees were living in 20 overcrowded centers under inhumane conditions, and that the government had “violated international human rights law prohibitions against arbitrary detention.”

In response to the government’s denial, HRW’s Asia director Elaine Pearson toldFree Malaysia Today on March 13 that their thoroughly reviewed report was based on findings from more than 40 interviews and a year of research.

Those interviewed included former detainees, family members, lawyers, humanitarian aid staff, and former immigration officials.

Pearson said HRW had reached out to the home ministry through a letter sent on Jan. 29, to get feedback on its findings.

“But we did not receive a response from the ministry, nor have we been able to meet with the home minister to discuss the report, despite weeks of requests,” she said.

The 60-page report titled ‘We Can’t See the Sun’: Malaysia’s Arbitrary Detention of Migrants and Refugees, said that about 12,000 migrants and refugees, including 1,400 children, were detained in 20 immigration detention centers nationwide.

"Migrants are held without recourse to judicial review or mechanisms to appeal their detention. The Malaysian government’s use of prolonged, judicially unsupervised immigration detention violates international human rights law prohibitions against arbitrary detention," said the press release that accompanied the report.

The report said that those detained had to put up with limited food and hygiene supplies, no access to medical treatment, frequent water shortages, inhumane punishment even on children.

“Children faced the same abuses as adult detainees. Seven children died in immigration detention in 2022, according to the home ministry,” said the report.

Two-thirds of the children were unaccompanied or separated. Children are detained with unrelated adults, at times separated from their families and deported alone. Women have given birth at the depots and remained detained with their newborns, without postpartum care or necessities such as diapers and formula, according to the report.

The Malaysian human rights lawyers’ organization, Lawyers for Liberty, condemned Saifuddin’s response.

“It is appalling and unacceptable that Saifuddin’s response is to go on the defensive and simply dismiss the claims that children are still being detained at detention centres,” said its director Zaid Malek.

“These are serious allegations that warrant a serious investigation, not a knee-jerk denial and a pretence that all is well.”

“In the interests of transparency, we ask that the government immediately allow full and unimpeded access to Suhakam [Human Rights Commission of Malaysia] to conduct a fact-finding mission to the immigration detention centers to ascertain the number of children in immigration detention centers and the conditions in which they are held,” he said in a press statement.

The government has denied the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees access to immigration detention centers since August 2019 without citing a reason.

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