In an article about our immigration officers and detention centres last year, the South China Morning Post called it “Malaysia’s secret hell”.
This seems to be right on point. On Friday, the Immigration Department confirmed a Nigerian PhD student from Limkokwing University had died in immigration custody, following a raid five days back.
The autopsy report is pending. Nevertheless, this death could have been avoided. Immigration director-general Khairul Dzaimee Daud said they detained Orhions Ewansiha Thomas to check if his student pass was legit as he attempted to flee during the raid.
But the burning question is: Why did it take five days for them to verify Thomas’s document when a phone call to the university would have clarified the matter instantly?
This clearly shows an abuse of power by the Immigration Department.
In 2017, Reuters reported that more than 100 foreigners died in the past two years in Malaysia’s immigration detention centres from various diseases and unknown causes, according to documents from the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam).
Commissioner Jerald Joseph described conditions at the centres as “appalling” and said the deaths should be investigated as a criminal matter.
In June last year, the Immigration Department came under scrutiny when an officer allegedly slapped a foreigner across the head with his passport before hitting his hands on the counter.
A month before that, Singaporean Joshua posted on his Facebook page about how he entered “hell” when Malaysian immigration officers detained him at the airport because his passport was due to expire in less than six months.
He was detained for 26 hours and wrote about seeing an innocent man being physically abused for asking questions.
In May 2018, a transgender man claimed he was humiliated by our immigration officers and threatened with physical assault because of his gender identity.
It’s clear that the blatant abuse of authority has led to many being held in overcrowded cells, denied medical attention and proper food, arbitrarily detained and denied their basic rights.
Today, we have another death on our hands. The department must be held responsible for this because Thomas and the others deserve justice.
And reforms are imminent to make this happen; not just at immigration detention centres but prisons, too, as Suhakam says there were 521 deaths in prisons in 2015 and 2016.
Home Minister Muhyiddin Yassin said the Prisons Department is looking at sweeping reforms in the areas of detention, rehabilitation, staff training, compliance with regulations and facilities.
I hope that these can be extended to include a review of the standard operating procedures of the Immigration Department as well, as Thomas’s death is one too many.
Charles Santiago is the Klang MP and a member of the Parliamentary Select Committee on Human Rights and Gender.
The views expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.