PETALING JAYA: North-South Initiative director Adrian Pereira has warned that Malaysia could be reported to United Nations (UN) bodies for denying the UN’s refugee agency access to refugees and asylum seekers in detention centres.
“These reports are going to make Malaysia look really bad, and the government won’t have anyone to blame but itself,” he told FMT.
“This (access) is a fundamental human right.
“The Malaysian government is already using ambiguity and non-clarity of law to deny them (refugees and asylum seekers) the right to a phone call and the right to a lawyer when they are detained,” he pointed out.
Malaysia is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 protocol which guarantees the rights of those who are given asylum in a country and the responsibilities of countries that grant asylum.
Both refugees and asylum seekers are considered undocumented (or “illegal”) migrants, or Pendatang Asing Tanpa Izin, under the 1959/1963 Immigration Act.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is the only agency that conducts the refugee status determination (RSD) process and assists resettlement to third countries and voluntary repatriation.
UNHCR this week said it had not been allowed to meet detained refugees and asylum seekers for more than a year. The agency conducts such visits to determine who should be given refugee status and allowed to leave the country.
There were some 178,450 refugees and asylum seekers registered with UNHCR in Malaysia as at the end of last month – 46,730 of them below the age of 18.
Visits provide accountability
Glorene Das, executive director of human rights group Tenaganita, said UNHCR visits provided some much-needed accountability in detention centres – which often struggled with overcrowding, poor sanitation, and complaints of physical and psychological abuse.
Das said information from other NGOs and from people who had been arrested, released or deported from detention centres made it “very clear” that the authorities did not have the right facilities to provide adequate healthcare to detainees amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
“We’ve long been saying that the camps must be monitored by independent bodies, but this has not been allowed for the longest time,” she told FMT.
“It is really worrying. What are the health services and standard operating procedures (SOPs) in place? Who is monitoring (these centres)? Those are the questions that we continue to ask.”
Das’ claims were echoed in an Indonesian report released last month which alleged that torture and inhumane treatment are rampant in Sabah’s temporary detention centres.
The result of an investigation into 1,082 Indonesian migrants who were deported from Sabah between June and September for entering or working in the country illegally, the report also found that extortion and seizure of personal property were common in the centres.
Noting how the crowded facilities made detainees more vulnerable to Covid-19 infections, the report highlighted how the cramped quarters also caused the detainees various physical illnesses and mental health problems.
John Quinley, senior human rights specialist at Fortify Rights, an independent group focused on Southeast Asia, reminded the government that UNHCR had a mandate to protect refugees and asylum seekers.
He warned that Covid-19 could spread quickly in detention centres and that Malaysian authorities should be working with UNHCR to release as many refugees, asylum seekers and trafficking survivors as possible as a matter of public health and human rights.
“It is outrageous that the Malaysian government would block UNHCR from accessing vulnerable populations in immigration detention centres,” he told FMT.
“UNHCR, when able to visit detention centres, can help get refugees out of detention. Refugees should not be detained based on their legal status. They need protection and services, not detention.”
FMT has contacted the Immigration Department for comment.