An international rights group has called on the Malaysian government to immediately release all children held in immigration detention facilities and allow the United Nations refugee agency regular access to those facilities.
Malaysia’s Home Ministry reported that, as of Oct. 26, there were 756 children being held in immigration detention facilities nationwide, including 326 from Myanmar who are detained without parents or guardians.
In a statement, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Malaysian authorities have denied the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) access to immigration facilities since August 2019. This has left the agency unable to determine whether those children and others detained have already been determined to be refugees or are entitled to refugee protection.
“It’s appalling that Malaysia is detaining so many children in overcrowded and unsanitary detention facilities, often without parents or guardians,” said Phil Robertson, HRW deputy Asia director on Nov. 20. “These vulnerable children, including many who likely fled atrocities in Myanmar, should be cared for, not treated as criminals,” Robertson said.
The rights group pointed out that the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), to which Malaysia is a party, prohibits the detention of children for immigration reasons.
A 2019 UN global study on children deprived of liberty reported that even if detention conditions are good, detaining children exacerbates existing health conditions and causes new ones, including anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress, and suicidal thoughts.
HRW also pointed out that detention also exposes children to the risk of sexual abuse and exploitation, even in countries that respect the obligation not to detain children with unrelated adults. In addition, the UN children’s fund, UNICEF, has called on all governments to release children from detention, specifically including immigration detention, due to COVID-19.
Malaysia is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention but is still bound by customary international refugee law. Over 175,000 refugees and asylum seekers, most of whom come from Myanmar, are registered with the UNHCR office but have no legal status and remain unable to work or enroll in government schools.
HRW said that Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s Perikatan Nasional government has discounted the rights of refugees, with the home minister stating that they have “no status, rights, or basis to present any demands to the government.”
The rights group said, that in April, Malaysian Navy pushed boatloads of desperate Rohingya refugees who were trying to reach Malaysia’s shores back out to sea, claiming that they were doing so to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Those permitted to land were detained as ‘illegal migrants,’ with some prosecuted for immigration violations and imprisoned.
HRW added that the Malaysian government did not respond when a massive, xenophobic campaign targeted Rohingya refugee leaders and their community, as well as their Malaysian defenders, in late April.
Since May, HRW said that the authorities have conducted numerous raids, ensnaring thousands of migrants, including children, and detaining them in overcrowded and unsanitary immigration detention centers to await deportation.