Don’t treat foreigners who became undocumented because of the pandemic as ‘illegal migrants’

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Photo: Hasnoor Hussain/Al Jazeera

Malaysians Against Death Penalty and Torture (Madpet) reiterates our call for lock-up and prison reforms, in the light of recent report when Malaysia recorded a massive jump in new Covid-19 cases on 7 September 2020, with 62 cases.

Fifty of these cases were from the new Benteng Lahad Datu Covid-19 cluster in Sabah, which emerged due to conditions in lock-ups that allowed infections to spread rapidly, the Ministry of Health said (Malay Mail, 7 September 2020).

On 8 September, there were 100 new Covid cases, and 62 of these cases originated from the Benteng Lahad Datu cluster in Sabah (Malay Mail, 8 September 2020). This brought the total infected in the Benteng Lahad Datu Covid-19 cluster to 128.

“Based on the risk analysis performed, the transmission of Covid-19 for this cluster was due to the cramped and crowded lock-up quarters. It was found that physical distancing was also hard to implement. This is the main factor contributing to Covid-19 infections among inmates,” Health director general Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah said in a statement (Malay Mail, 7 September 2020)

Out of a total of 66 positive cases from the cluster registered thus far, Noor Hisham said 64 of them involved inmates while two more involved a prison guard and his nephew.

It all started with the arrest of infected persons who were then detained with other Covid-19-free detainees. The source of this Sabah cluster was traced back to the arrests of two undocumented migrants who were then held in police custody at the Lahad Datu police headquarters on 24 August.

Madpet and others had previously highlighted this risk: it was suggested that alleged movement control order violators and others suspected of small crimes should not be arrested and then detained with others especially during this pandemic – the risk of Covid-19 infection is simply too high.

It is sad that this is happening almost five months after the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic: Malaysia has failed to learn from past experiences, especially after from the past cases of infections in Malaysia’s immigration detention depots. To date, there have been infections at the Bukit Jalil Detention Depot (650 infections and one death), Sepang (72 infections), Semenyih (65), Semenyih 2(one) and Putrajaya (two).

The introduction of possibly infected persons to an otherwise Covid-19-free community in detention facilities must end. Testing and a mandatory 14-day quarantine are a must. Temporary detention in already gazetted quarantine centres is an option.

Madpet urges that new regulations be put in place in all detention facilities, including police lock-ups, which would include the non-introduction of new detainees to detainee populations until they have first been tested and/or quarantined, to ensure social distancing and no overcrowding.

Persons who do not have to be remanded to enable authorities to complete investigations should not be.

Malaysians already know that the remand of suspects is not necessary for the purposes of investigation, as was demonstrated in many cases involving prominent persons including the case of a former prime Minister who has been convicted of seven counts of abuse of power, corruption and money laundering.

Remand should never be used as a form of ‘punishment’ by the authorities. One must never forget the only purpose of remand is for the purpose of investigation only.

After arrests, suspects can always be released on police bail and their passports be seized to prevent a flight risk. There can be other conditions placed, like turning up at the station for investigation at a particular day and time. There is no need to place them in remand.

The need for a general improvement in Malaysia’s already overcrowded detention facilities to meet international standards must be a government priority.

Malaysian Prisons Department deputy director general (security and correctional) Mohamed Alnassif Mohamed Adahan was recently reported as saying that “68,000 prison inmates are currently housed in 42 prisons nationwide” and this “number exceeded the prescribed capacity of 52,000” (The Sun Daily, 8 August 2020).

About 25% of them are pre-trial remand prisoners, and the problem for many may be poverty and thus their inability to afford bail. The government should release a majority of these pre-conviction prisoners on reduced bail or even personal bonds, especially when they are being charged and tried for not-so-serious crimes that did not cause injury or death.

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Migrants who became undocumented after the movement control order began

Certain categories of undocumented migrants should never have been arrested and detained. These could include:

  • Those whose permits or social visit passes have expired and could not return to their home countries because of travel restrictions
  • Those whose permits or visas could not be renewed because even immigration departments were closed during the start of the movement control order
  • Those whose permits could not renewed or extended because of loss of jobs as their employer’s business was affected by the pandemic
  • Those who were documented migrant workers who had an employment agreement for three to five years, who now cannot renew their permits because of a sudden change in Malaysian government’s policy restricting the sectors allowed to employ migrant workers

Many foreigners have no choice but to remain in Malaysia since there are still major restrictions on travel out of Malaysia back to their country of origin.

There could be other reasons, including the failure of employers to provide their flight tickets back home. Many have simply become too poor, due to loss of jobs and income, to afford to go back. Malaysia provided financial assistance to Malaysians, but not to migrants – including documented migrants.

Malaysia may want to provide for an amnesty for all these categories of foreigners and migrant workers, which will include no arrests and detentions until the end of the movement control orders and the restoration of international air travel.

We want Malaysian migrants in other countries to be cared for by those countries they are in. As such Malaysia, must set an example by being a caring government, and it should also look into providing assistance to foreigners to help them survive in Malaysia during this pandemic until they are able to return home.

Charles Hector issued this statement on behalf of Malaysians Against Death Penalty and Torture (Madpet)

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