Govt sheds light on refugees, overcrowded depots

The disclosure came after MPs of both sides raised various questions on the issue

pic by AFP

THE government’s recent report on the country’s prison facilities and detention depots offer a glimpse into the living conditions of thousands of undocumented migrants and refugees whose mass arrest in Kuala Lumpur on Labour Day drew international attention.

The matter was raised in Parliament last week by at least 10 MPs of both sides involving questions on arrest figures, deportation status, actions against migrant smuggling and the protection of children at depots.

The disclosures, which were mainly given in writing instead of being openly addressed on the floor of the lower house, revealed shocking details dating back to 2015, where two infants died on record at detention depots due to bacterial infection.

The persisting problem of overcrowded prisons and detention depots was also brought to light in response to further queries by Alor Setar MP Chan Ming Kai who raised the issue of Malaysia’s refugee policy in the special chamber.

The government revealed that as of July 1, 2020, the total number of prisoners nationwide stood at 60,983 — 28% above the limit of 47,650.

Deputy Home Minister I Datuk Seri Ismail Mohamed Said said this was due to a significant rise in foreign prisoners who account for about 20% of overall prisoners at 13,319.

The figure consisted of 15 ethnic Rohingyas, including one minor offender who is being held at the Henry Gurney School, in line with provisions under the Child Act 2001.

Meanwhile, the total number in custody at detention depots stood at 20% over the country’s capacity at 15,163.

Ismail said this was heightened by global lockdown measures, which have affected deportation efforts.

Of the total, he said authorities had identified 1,340 Rohingyas.

In one of the written responses provided, directed to inquiries by Johor Baru MP Akmal Nasrullah Mohd Nasir, the government said a total of 5,951 detainees had been deported throughout the Movement Control Order (MCO) phase.

Foreign nationals from Indonesia topped the list with 4,110 individuals, followed by Thailand (637), Myanmar (391), Pakistan (380), Bangladesh (279), China (73), India (26) and Sri Lanka (11).

The immigration department carried out 4,301 operations in total between Jan 1 and July 2 this year, against 59,946 operations from 2016 until 2019.

It said legal actions were taken in the past seven months against 17,473 undocumented migrants and 250 employers.

The highest number of arrests involved Indonesian nationals at 6,514, followed by Bangladeshis (2,964).

The government also offered some details on incarceration costs, saying the average cost per inmate per day is RM50, while the average cost per individual held at depots is RM90 per day.

These costs are for food, medical supplies, personal care equipment, rehabilitation, maintenance, water and electricity fees, as well as allowances and wages of officers on duty.

Joseph says efforts are being done to separate cases involving drug abuse and drug-related crimes – pic by Hussein Shaharuddin

Human Rights Commission of Malaysia commissioner Jerald Joseph told The Malaysian Reserve that checks carried out on detention camps had raised some red flags on cleanliness which included poor water quality and the lack of provision of sanitary pads for women.

However, he said the main question lies in why many are being held at depots for longer periods.

“The detention camps are supposed to be temporary to facilitate the process for deportation. Yet, many of them have been there for a long period of time. Usually, the time taken is a few months, but there have been occasions where it has gone up to 10 months and even more.

“The process is not as straightforward as it sometimes involves embassies having to give travel passes and provide some money for the return travel. But if the numbers are big, the governments responsible may arrange for a flight or a ship to take their undocumented migrants back,” Joseph said.

He said the process should be even faster for Rohingya refugees as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) can quickly identify them and issue a UNHCR card, upon which, they would be allowed to live and manage themselves.

“That should be the usual understanding when it comes to dealing with refugees, nothing else you can do to them. There is no point of charging them in court or putting them into prisons nor deport them. You just must respect that they are refugees and allow them into the community.

“You cannot send them back to Myanmar, and even if they came from Coax Bazaar, we have no authority to deport them to Bangladesh because they are not citizens there. Therefore, they are stuck, and Malaysia, as a respectful country takes it as an international obligation.

In a written reply, the govt says a total of 5,951 detainees have been deported throughout the MCO period with foreign nationals from Indonesia topping the list – pic by AFP

“We have done fairly well over the last decade with other refugees, so we are often viewed as being open and accepting. The public is angry with them coming here, but they have no choice. Nothing gets resolved by being angry, so we must fight at the international and regional levels to find a solution. Until it is found, this will continue for many more years,” he said.

Malaysia is not a signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention nor the 1967 Protocol, which means the country does not officially recognise individuals with refugee status.

However, Malaysia has adopted a rather compassionate approach, but has recently cited dwindling resources as reasons it could no longer take in Rohingya refugees.

On the issue of overcrowding in prison, Joseph said efforts are being done to separate cases involving drug abuse as 40%-50% of those behind bars are in for drug-related crimes.

“All this requires rethinking and budget recalibration and for this, there must be a policy shift. I think the previous government was working on it, but nothing strong has come out of it yet. I do not think anyone is denying that overcrowding is a problem.

“The government also knows that budget is a big issue thus, the next step requires a political decision. I think there is openness in wanting to find a solution, but there is a need to make the political call, at the policy level, by the government,” he said.