Prosecute Human Traffickers; End Protracted Detention of Refugee, Migrants
(Kuala Lumpur, April 4, 2017)—The Government of Malaysia should investigate deaths in immigration detention centers without delay and re-open an investigation into the human trafficking of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar and Bangladeshis in recent years, Fortify Rights said today. In an ongoing investigation, Fortify Rights documented severe conditions in immigration detention centers in Malaysia as well as unchecked trafficking of Rohingya and Bangladeshi nationals to Malaysia from 2013 to 2015.
The National Human Rights Commission of Malaysia—known as Suruhanjaya Hak Asasi Manusia Malaysia (SUHAKAM)—published its annual report today, finding that a total of 118 foreigners died in Malaysia’s immigration detention centers in 2015 and 2016.
“A single death in immigration custody is unacceptable. More than 100 deaths is completely inexcusable,” said Amy Smith, Executive Director of Fortify Rights. “SUHAKAM’s report should send shockwaves throughout the Malaysian government and elicit an immediate response.”
SUHAKAM reported 83 deaths in 2015 and another 35 deaths up to December 20, 2016. The causes of death reportedly ranged from sepsis or septic shock, leptospirosis—a type of bacterial infection—pneumonia, lung infections, and heart-related conditions. In 50 of the reported cases, the authorities apparently failed to provide the specific cause of death.
Fortify Rights called for the Malaysian authorities to conduct a criminal investigation into the deaths in immigration detention and for perpetrators to be held accountable, regardless of rank or position.
“These deaths can’t be swept under the rug,” said Amy Smith. “Those responsible must be held to account.”
Former immigration detainees interviewed by Fortify Rights in Malaysia in 2016 described how Malaysian authorities detained them in overcrowded detention facilities for protracted periods of time with inadequate access to clean water, sufficient food, or healthcare. One former detainee from Myanmar—an ethnic Kachin man, 22—told Fortify Rights: “The guards gave us pink water to drink at breakfast. If you wanted water at other times, then you had to drink the toilet water.”
Malaysia’s Immigration Department implausibly claimed that detainees contracted illnesses prior to their detention.
SUHAKAM’s report confirms that access to clean drinking water is a problem in Malaysia’s immigration detention facilities and contributes to preventable illnesses. In its report, the commission refers to “untenable living conditions with little regard for the inmates’ basic human dignity.” SUHAKAM called for the Immigration Department to work with the Ministry of Health “to ensure that a medical officer is placed at all immigration detention centres and that medical facilities including medicine are adequately supplied to the centres.”
Former immigration-detention detainees told Fortify Rights that detention guards beat them and subjected them to physical abuse. For instance, a Rohingya woman from Myanmar, 19, diagnosed with tuberculosis told Fortify Rights: “I was beaten often by the guards because I asked for medicine. If I asked to see a doctor, then the guards would handcuff my hands above my head all day.”
Speaking to Reuters, the Deputy Home Minister Datuk Nur Jazlan Mohamed acknowledged the overcrowding and poor conditions of the immigration detention centers as well the need to improve “procedures, health conditions and management of these sites” but cited “a budget brick wall” as the problem.
“The problems with Malaysia’s immigration detention practices extend well beyond budgetary concerns,” said Amy Smith. “Malaysian authorities could begin tackling this by ending arbitrary and indefinite detention of migrants, including refugees and survivors of trafficking. No money is required to uphold the right to liberty.”
International law prohibits arbitrary, unlawful, or indefinite detention, including of non-nationals. A state may only restrict the right to liberty of migrants in exceptional cases following a detailed assessment of the individual concerned. Any detention must be necessary and proportionate to achieve a legitimate aim, according to the law. Malaysia also has a duty to ensure that the treatment and conditions for detainees in immigration detention centers are in line with international standards. This would include ensuring access to basic necessities, such as clean drinking water, adequate and nutritional foods, and access to appropriate medical treatment.
More than half of those who died in Malaysian detention facilities during the past two years were from Myanmar, including Rohingya Muslims and other ethnic and religious minorities fleeing ongoing persecution by Myanmar authorities. Moreover, 82 of the deaths in immigration detention occurred in 2015, the year in which human trafficking of Rohingya and Bangladeshis to Malaysia via Thailand reached its height.
In 2016, Fortify Rights and the Burmese Rohingya Organization UK documented the protracted confinement and risk of indefinite detention of Rohingya refugees in Malaysia. Malaysian authorities allowed several hundred Rohingya survivors of human trafficking to enter Malaysia after traffickers abandoned them in boats at sea. Malaysian authorities later detained the survivors.
Rohingya women who survived the “boat crisis” and were later detained in Malaysia’s Belantik immigration detention facilities told Fortify Rights that at least one person in the Belantik immigration facility died of tuberculosis after the guards refused to facilitate access to a doctor.
Transnational criminal syndicates trafficked tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar to Thailand and Malaysia since 2012. Despite the discovery of more than 100 gravesites of suspected trafficking victims in Wang Kelian near the Thailand border, the Malaysian government’s investigation has failed to result in any notable accountability. SUHAKAM notes that the Malaysian government’s rate of prosecution of human traffickers with respect to the mass graves includes no government officials and is “not convincing.”
SUHAKAM is proceeding with an investigation into the human trafficking of Rohingya Muslims and others from Myanmar to Malaysia. Fortify Rights is cooperating with and contributing to SUHAKAM’s ongoing investigation.
“We’ve seen little accountability for the trafficking of tens of thousands of Rohingya and others into Malaysia,” said Amy Smith. “Urgent action must be taken to end impunity for human traffickers and ensure protection for survivors.”