Real political action needed to address deaths in immigration centres


A WELL-KNOWN minister recently made an unconcerned remark about the deaths of migrants in the Sabah immigration detention facilities. The minister shows a lack of empathy in bearing the mandate to oversee the immigration department and its operation.

In reality, procedural standards within these detention centres are extremely poor, detainees are rarely informed of the reasons for detention and they have little to no access to legal counsel. NGOs like Suhakam (the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia) have repeatedly reported on the serious problems relating to places of detention, notably the harsh living conditions, which fall short of minimum standards. It can also be seen that the rise in the number of people

detained has not been matched by an increase in the necessary resources, such as the budget.

The claims about the poorly-maintained detention centre and mistreatment of detainees are evidenced in the report titled “A Report From Hell: Conditions Of The Immigration Detention Centres In Sabah, Malaysia” which was released by Sovereign Migrant Workers Coalition. There is no way for the Ministry of Home Affairs to dodge the allegations.

The report outlined that all of the Immigration Detention Centres in Sabah are:

1. Deliberately neglecting sick detainees and not providing timely medical services to prevent detainees’ illnesses from developing into severe and fatal consequences;

2. Deliberately not referring sick detainees to a healthcare centre before their illnesses worsen to a more serious one; 

3. Deliberately not providing the necessary human resources, health facilities and medicines in the detention centres, except for the Tawau detention depot which carried out health checks (tuberculosis tests) for detainees;

4. Deliberately not making efforts to fulfil the right to health for detainees.

The fact remains that the death cases inside the immigration detention centres are actually preventable. In addition, the high mortality rate, whereby 149 Indonesians died in five Sabah detention centres over 18 months between 2021 and 2022, demonstrates the need to review health standards and the living conditions at the centres.

It is high time that the government assess the human rights violations in immigration detention centres in light of international human rights norms and standards. 

As suggested in a report by the Global Detention Project, a few key questions that may be considered by the government: 

1. What steps are the government taking in order to ensure more migrants, asylum seekers and refugees do not die in detention centres? 

2. Does the government have plans to provide non-custodial measures for the most vulnerable detainees (eg pregnant and lactating mothers, refugee women and girls, and those with medical and mental health needs?) 

3. How can the government guarantee that refugee women and girls are protected against sexual violence and exploitation during detention? 

4. Does the government keep track of the number of men, women, and kids who are held in immigration detention each year? Does it make these statistics available to the general public?

We support the call from the report to improve the conditions and treatment of detainees in immigration detention facilities. These recommendations include:

• to provide a place of detention with basic facilities (detention room, bed, food, drinking water, clothing, toilet) that is appropriate and sufficient;

• to improve the health facilities in the immigration detention centres, increase visits by health workers and facilitate access to hospitals to avoid preventable deaths.

• to review and stop the punishment of lashing, which causes pain, and handcuffs. To ensure that there are no more incidents of torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment and punishment.

We hope that there will be real political action by the government to address these issues, as the fact persists that the information on severe abuse of immigration detainees can no longer be ignored.

  • Simraatraj Kaur Dhillon and Farah Mohd Anuar are research and advocacy analysts at Bait Al Amanah, an independent research institute that promotes policy and decision-making through sound, independent and multidisciplinary analysis in areas of governance and democracy, economics, security and issues of national importance.