Letter to Editor: Mass breakout of refugees from detention centre a major policy failure

For illustration purpose. Photo of Vietnamese boat people by Trong Khiem Nguyen/Flickr

The detention centre breakout that occurred in the Sungai Bakap Immigration Depot is a larger issue of Malaysia’s policy failure in its treatment of refugees in the country. The issue of refugees has not been addressed appropriately, and this is despite the fact that Malaysia has been a destination country since 1975 when Vietnamese refugees were arriving by boats onto our shores. Despite all these years, we have yet to have a proper refugee policy in place and what more, we are now a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council.

Today, thousands of refugees from Myanmar flee their homeland because they face violence, rape, murder and cruel treatment in their country. They have no choice but to flee to a safe country. However, our treatment and response to the refugees have fallen short.

SUHAKAM Commissioner, Jerald Joseph had recently revealed that Rohinga refugees were being kept in immigration department custody since 2020 with no access given to the UN Refugee agency (UNHCR) to verify if they were refugees. The verification process will allow for refugees to be identified, provided with an UNHCR card and released from detention. This is unacceptable. UNHCR has been blocked from accessing these detention centres since 2019. Why is this so? Refugees should not be detained but protected instead!

The Home Minister, Hamzah Zainuddin revealed this morning that all 528 refugees that broke out from the immigration detention centre were being previously held there for two years. What is shocking and disgraceful is the fact that the detainees also include around 83 women and 93 children as revealed by Kedah police chief Wan Hassan Wan Ahmad this morning.

How could we detain a Rohinga child running from murder, rape and violence from his or her homeland but speak out strongly against similar situations faced by children elsewhere in the world?

The refugees that escaped the detention centre did so for a reason. They were being detained for 2 years despite in need of help. The living conditions in detention centres are known to be deplorable. The fact that these detainees were being denied access to UNHCR also cuts them out from the outside world. We do not know how much they were suffering in the detention centres that led to them losing their patience and planning the escape.

They cannot be at fault for trying to save themselves. The death of children and women on the highway was an unnecessary episode that could have been avoided if these refugees were given access to UNHCR and legal representation in the very first instance when they arrived here. There was no need to keep them in detention.

This is a wakeup call for the Malaysian Government to relook its policies on refugees in the country. Malaysia must be an example in ASEAN and lead the way in rolling out humanitarian policies to protect refugees in our country.

We must ratify the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and amend our laws to provide protection to refugees seeking refuge in our homeland. Many industries are facing labour shortages in the country, especially in plantations. Why do we need to bring in thousands of foreign workers from Bangladesh when we already have thousands of them unemployed here on our doorstep? We could provide them with jobs rather than detaining them.

And as for the incident that occurred at Sungai Bakap detention centre, there must be a Royal Commission setup to investigate the entire episode. Malaysians need to know the truth of what happened in that detention Centre that led to the escape and death of 6 refugees. The conditions in the detention centre must be investigated. Their treatments must be investigated, and the events leading up to the death of the 6 refugees must be investigated.

K.Sudhagaran Stanley

Views expressed here are that of the writer’s and do not necessarily reflect that of Weekly Echo’s.