ASYLUM SEEKERS and refugees are being kept in squalid, abusive conditions and at least two dozen have died in Malaysian immigration detention since 2015, says the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
“They gave us only one small cup of water with our meals, otherwise we had to drink toilet water,” a female 18-year-old Rohingya told The Guardian. “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.”
Malaysia’s Human Rights Commission (Suhakam) reports that conditions are so bad in detention that they are “torture-like,” with inmates denied adequate food, water and medical treatment.
The UNHCR told The Guardian that 24 people, most of whom were Burma (Myanmar) nationals, have died in detention since 2015.
“These deaths are absolutely preventable,” said executive director of Fortify Rights Amy Smith. “The fix is very easy — Malaysia just has to stop treating refugees like hardened criminals.”
Reuters reported even higher numbers of deaths last month according to a report by Suhakam, citing 83 deaths in 2015 and at least 35 in 2016.
“The numbers are too many and are shocking and it calls for the overhaul of the system,” said Jerald Joseph, a commissioner.
There are 246,270 people of concern to the UNHCR in Malaysia, of whom around 150,000 are asylum seekers and refugees.
A majority are Rohingya Muslims who fled persecution and violence at the hands of Buddhist nationalists and the military in Burma. Many have been in Malaysia for decades.
As Malaysia is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, asylum seekers and refugees are denied basic rights to education, healthcare and employment.
Refugees typically work illegally in informal work as cleaners, construction workers or in hospitality. Labour rights abuses including the denial of wages are reportedly widespread.
Late last year the Malaysian government announced a pilot scheme in partnership with UNHCR to allow 300 Rohingya refugees to work, lauded by many as a step forward for the rights of refugees and asylum seekers there.
Nevertheless, “whether this pilot will translate into something more meaningful, such as work rights for all refugees registered with the UNHCR: better access to health services; education for the more than 30,000 children under the age of 18; and, less discrimination by authorities, remains to be seen,” wrote Dr Gerhard Hoffstaedter from the University of Queensland, an expert on migration issues in Malaysia.