Immigration Detention Centres Become Malaysia Coronavirus Hotspot


Immigration Detention Centres Become Malaysia Coronavirus Hotspot

Despite strict movement restrictions that have helped contain the coronavirus, Malaysia finds itself facing a surge of cases in overcrowded detention centres that coincided with a series of raids last month in which more than 2,000 undocumented migrants were picked up.

“We have identified detention centres as a high-risk area,” Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah, the director-general of the Ministry of Health, said at a news briefing on May 26.

Some 35 cases were identified at a detention centre near Kuala Lumpur on May 22. Four days later, the number had jumped to 227 across three sites, and by May 31, had reached 410 across four sites.

“These raids under the pretence of stopping the spread of COVID-19 have only served to further spread the virus,” Beatrice Lau, Head of Mission for Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres, or MSF) in Malaysia told Al Jazeera. “The authorities had been warned about the risk of infection in detention centres many times.”

Authorities began the raids on May 1 in areas within designated COVID-19 “red zones” placed under “enhanced” restrictions enforced by the police and military.

Malaysia defines red zones as districts with more than 41 cases of coronavirus within a two-week period, but in areas where worrying clusters have emerged, a stricter lockdown is imposed with razor wire rolled out to seal off the area and prevent residents from going in or out.

The raids triggered a swift reaction from Malaysia’s human rights commission, as well as health and rights groups, who warned of the risks of detaining migrants in overcrowded facilities, and of eroding trust among migrants asked to come forward for testing or treatment.

“This disregard for migrant lives by the authorities is appalling,” Preethi Bhardwaj, interim executive director of Amnesty International Malaysia told Al Jazeera. “[Detainees’] health and lives have been put at risk.”

Anxiety of lockdown

There were an estimated two to four million undocumented migrant workers in Malaysia as of 2018, in addition to more than two million documented migrant workers, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

Nearly 180,000 refugees and asylum seekers are also registered with the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) who are also considered “illegal immigrants” because Malaysia is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention.

Peter Thang, a Chin refugee from Myanmar, lives in the Pudu neighbourhood of central Kuala Lumpur. The last two weeks have been ones of immense anxiety, with the area cut off from the rest of the city with razor wire.

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Thang told Al Jazeera on May 22 that his two children, who had not left their apartment building since mid-March, were becoming restless and uneasy. “Every day, policemen are patrolling and announcing something in Malay, but I cannot understand,” he said. “When my children hear sirens, they are shocked.”

In the event, there were no raids in Pudu, and UNHCR’s spokesperson in Kuala Lumpur told Al Jazeera the agency had received notification from authorities that registered refugees and asylum seekers would not be detained in any raids.

But that provides little reassurance to the estimated 80,000 people awaiting UNHCR registration. 

Immigration Detention Centres Become Malaysia Coronavirus Hotspot


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