By K Sudhagaran Stanley
The detention centre breakout that occurred at the Sungai Bakap immigration depot reflects a larger issue of Malaysia’s major policy failure in its treatment of refugees in the country.
We should be ashamed of ourselves and our government for failing to address this issue appropriately – and this is despite Malaysia having been a destination country since 1975, when Vietnamese refugees were arriving by boats onto our shores.
After all these years, we still failed to have a proper, humane refugee policy in place, and worse, we are now a member of the UN Human Rights Council.
Today, thousands of refugees from Myanmar flee their homeland because they face violence, rape, murder and cruel treatment in their country. They have no choice but to flee to a safe country.
However, we have failed to recognise this need and to provide a safe space for them. Our treatment and response have been cruel and inhuman. There is no need to mention the ill-treatment that refugees face in Malaysia, as it is a well-known fact.
Suhakam commissioner Jerald Joseph recently revealed that Rohingya refugees were being kept in Immigration Department custody since 2020, with no access given to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) to verify if they were refugees. The verification process would have allowed for refugees to be identified, provided with a UNHCR card, and released from detention.
This is unacceptable. The UNHCR has been blocked from accessing these detention centres since 2019. Why is this so? Refugees should not be detained but protected instead!
Home Minister Hamzah Zainuddin has revealed that all 528 refugees who broke out from the immigration detention centre had been held there for two years. What is shocking and disgraceful is that the detainees include around 83 women and 93 children, as revealed by Kedah Police chief Wan Hassan Wan Ahmad.
The government champions the Palestinian issue at the international stage, but for refugees on our own shores, the government treats them inhumanly. This is hypocrisy. How can we detain Rohingya children running from murder, rape and violence from their homeland yet speak out strongly about Palestinian children murdered by Israeli bombs?
The refugees who escaped from the detention centre did so for a reason. They were being detained for two years despite being in need of help. The living conditions in detention centres are known to be a living hell, with cramped spaces, dirty toilets and horrible food.
The fact that these detainees were being denied access to the UNHCR also cuts them off from the outside world. We do not know how much they were suffering in the detention centres and what sort of abuse they were facing that led to them losing patience and planning the escape. They cannot be at fault for trying to save themselves from oppression.
The death of children and women on the highway was an unnecessary episode that could have been avoided if these refugees had been given access to the UNHCR and legal representation the moment they arrived here. There was no need to keep them in detention.
This is a wake-up call for the Malaysian government to relook its policies on refugees in the country. Malaysia must be an example in Asean and lead the way in rolling out humanitarian policies to protect refugees in our country.
Look at the Ukraine crisis and how European countries are coming together to provide shelter for Ukrainian refugees fleeing the war. There is so much to learn from them.
We must ratify the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and amend our laws to provide protection to refugees seeking refuge in our homeland. They should be provided with legal employment opportunities, free healthcare and education.
Most importantly, they should not be detained. Many industries are facing labour shortages in the country, especially in the plantations. Why do we need to bring in thousands of foreign workers from Bangladesh when we already have thousands of them unemployed here on our doorstep? We could provide them with jobs rather than detaining them.
The UNHCR, on the other hand, has also failed miserably in its advocacy efforts in Malaysia. More needs to be done by the UNHCR to help improve conditions for refugees here, and they need to up the pressure on the Malaysian government.
And as for the incident that occurred at the Sungai Bakap detention centre, there must be a royal commission setup to investigate the entire episode. Malaysians need to know the truth of what happened in that detention centre that led to the escape and death of six refugees.
The conditions in the detention centre must be investigated. Their treatments must be investigated, and the events leading up to the death of the six refugees must be investigated.
The Bar Council must also step in to provide legal representation to the refugees being charged in court for fleeing. There is a serious risk of a misjustice here, as there is a language barrier, and many of the refugees are also in fear and might be forced by surrounding circumstances to plead guilty.
Sudhagaran Stanley is an anti-corruption and human rights activist. He is one of the co-founders of a learning centre that provides free education to refugee children. He was the former chairman of the Episcopal Commission for Migrants and Itinerants of the Bishop’s Conference of Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei and former Penang Co-ordinator of the Migration Working Group Malaysia. These are his personal views as an activist