‘Beaten and tortured’: Foreigners share horrific experiences at immigration depot

As of last September, a total of 1,467 children were detained in 20 immigration detention centers throughout Malaysia, Human Rights Watch said.

In a report released today, the international rights organization presents a harrowing eyewitness account detailing how a nine year old boy was beaten for asking for more bread.

The witness, Ali, a Rohingya refugee registered with the United Nations, said that when he tried to stop the attack, he was instead tortured.

Ali, 44, was held in a water tank overnight and beaten if he tried to stand up.

Human Rights Watch said children in the detention centers, commonly known as depots, often face the same abuses as adult detainees – including denial of medical care, insufficient food and ill-treatment.

“Of the total number of children detained, two thirds of them are unaccompanied or separated from their families and at times, sent back (to their country of origin) alone,” said Human Rights Watch.

The government has acknowledged the alarming statistical rate of child deaths in custody, citing seven deaths in custody in 2022.

However, specific details about the cause were not disclosed.

Children in detention suffer from harsh conditions, lack of nutrition, education and space.

Women have given birth at the depot and remained detained with their newborns, without post natal care or necessities such as diapers and formula, the report said.

Former detainees interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that some mothers were punished because their children cried and found it difficult to get basic necessities for their babies and toddlers.

“Instead of developing community based alternatives, the government launched the Baitul Mahabbah program at the end of 2023, moving a number of children to two new temporary centers, where they will remain under control until they are sent home,” said Human Rights Watch.

Citing one case, a mother of two Indonesian girls aged 13 and 16 revealed that they all had scabies (a type of skin disease) while detained for three years at the Menggatal depot in Kota Kinabalu.

Last August, children as young as eight were among 425 illegal immigrants arrested in an apartment building in Cheras.

Due to the absence of a legal limit to the length of immigration detention, foreigners face the risk of being detained for an indefinite period.

“The Malaysian government’s immigration detention of children is in flagrant violation of international law and defies global efforts towards total elimination,” the report said.

Human Rights Watch then called on the government to immediately stop the detention of refugees, children, victims of trafficking and vulnerable migrants for immigration reasons.

The report’s list of recommendations also calls on Putrajaya to enact legislation to eliminate immigration detention for children and families, regardless of nationality while establishing a secure vetting process for their identification and release.

In the meantime, it also urged the authorities to avoid separating family members until family detention ends and prioritize the best interests of children.

In addition, preventive measures must be taken to avoid the mixing of detained children with unrelated adults.

“Children should also be given education according to their age in detention until alternatives are implemented. Birth registration and documentation for children born here should also be ensured,” he added.

The government is also urged to withdraw reservations to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, particularly Articles 7, 28(1)(a), and 37 relating to birth registration, education and child custody.

For its latest report, Human Rights Watch interviewed 43 former detainees from Myanmar, Indonesia, Syria and Palestine between January and March last year.

The interviews were held in Malaysia and Indonesia and research was conducted with former Suhakam commissioner Jerald Joseph, a consultant with Human Rights Watch.

Some detainees have been detained multiple times and the most recent detentions are from 2019 to 2023, for periods between three months and three years.

Government reports reveal that 45,000 illegal immigrants have been detained since May 2020.

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