AN international human rights watchdog has called on the Malaysian government to investigate the ‘completely inexcusable’ deaths of over 100 detainees in recent years, including that of Bangladeshi migrants and the Burmese Rohingya community held in its immigration centres.
Citing the National Human Rights Commission of Malaysia’s (Suhakam) recently released annual report, the group, Fortify Rights, noted that 118 foreigners died in Malaysia’s immigration detention centres in 2015 and 2016.
“A single death in immigration custody is unacceptable. More than 100 deaths is completely inexcusable,” said group executive director Amy Smith said in a statement Tuesday.
“Suhakam’s report should send shockwaves throughout the Malaysian government and elicit an immediate response.”
In its report, Suhakam said there were 83 deaths recorded in 2015 and a further 35 up to Dec 20, 2016. The causes of death ranged from sepsis or septic shock, leptospirosis—a type of bacterial infection, pneumonia, lung infections, and heart-related conditions.
In 50 of the reported cases, the authorities apparently failed to provide the specific cause of death.
Fortify Rights called for a criminal investigation into the custodial deaths and for perpetrators to be held accountable, regardless of rank or position.
“These deaths can’t be swept under the rug,” Smith said. “Those responsible must be held to account.”
The group said last year, former immigration detainees it interviewed in Malaysia described how they were held in “overcrowded detention facilities” for protracted periods of time with “inadequate” access to clean water, sufficient food, or healthcare. They also claimed of abuse; a 19-year-old Rohingya woman diagnosed with tuberculosis claimed she was beaten often by the guards because she asked for medicine.
Another former detainee, a 22-year-old ethnic Burmese Kachin said: “The guards gave us pink water to drink at breakfast. If you wanted water at other times, then you had to drink the toilet water.”
According to Fortify Rights, Malaysia’s Immigration Department “implausibly” claimed that detainees contracted illnesses prior to their detention.
Suhakam’s report, however, said access to clean drinking water is a problem in Malaysia’s immigration detention facilities and contributes to preventable illnesses. It added that the centres provide “untenable living conditions with little regard for the inmates’ basic human dignity”.
Suhakam also urged the Immigration Department to work with the Health Ministry “to ensure that a medical officer is placed at all immigration detention centres and that medical facilities including medicine are adequately supplied to the centres.”
Speaking to Reuters recently, Malaysia’s Deputy Home Minister Nur Jazlan Mohamed acknowledged the overcrowding and poor conditions of the immigration detention centers as well the need to improve “procedures, health conditions and management of these sites” but cited “a budget brick wall” as the problem.
Smith, however, said: “The problems with Malaysia’s immigration detention practices extend well beyond budgetary concerns.”
“Malaysian authorities could begin tackling this by ending arbitrary and indefinite detention of migrants, including refugees and survivors of trafficking. No money is required to uphold the right to liberty.”
Fortify Rights reiterated that international law prohibits arbitrary, unlawful, or indefinite detention, including of non-nationals.
“A state may only restrict the right to liberty of migrants in exceptional cases following a detailed assessment of the individual concerned,” the group said.
“Any detention must be necessary and proportionate to achieve a legitimate aim, according to the law.”
The group also said Malaysia is duty-bound to ensure that the treatment and conditions for detainees in immigration detention centres were in line with international standards.
“This would include ensuring access to basic necessities, such as clean drinking water, adequate and nutritional foods, and access to appropriate medical treatment.”
More than half of those who died in Malaysia’s detention centres over the past two years were from Burma, including the Rohingya and other ethnic and religious minorities fleeing ongoing persecution by Burmese authorities.
Moreover 82 of the deaths in immigration detention occurred in 2015, the year in which the trafficking of Rohingya and Bangladeshis to Malaysia via Thailand reached its peak.
That year, Malaysian authorities allowed several hundred Rohingya survivors of human trafficking to enter Malaysia after they were abandoned in boats at sea. They then detained the survivors.
According to Fortify Rights, transnational criminal syndicates have trafficked tens of thousands of Rohingya from Myanmar to Thailand and Malaysia since 2012.
The group also recalled the discovery of more than 100 gravesites of suspected trafficking victims in Malaysia’s Wang Kelian near the Thailand border and said the government’s investigation failed to result in any notable accountability.
Suhakam in its report noted that the Malaysian government’s rate of prosecution of human traffickers with respect to the mass graves included no government officials and was “not convincing.”
“We’ve seen little accountability for the trafficking of tens of thousands of Rohingya and others into Malaysia,” Smith said. “Urgent action must be taken to end impunity for human traffickers and ensure protection for survivors.”