By K. Sudhagaran Stanley

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia--The detention centre breakout that occurred in the Sungai Bakap Immigration Depot is a larger issue of Malaysia’s major policy failure in its treatment of refugees in the country.

We should be ashamed of ourselves and our government for failing to address this issue appropriately, and this is despite the fact that Malaysia has been a destination country since 1975 when Vietnamese refugees were arriving by boat onto our shores.

Despite all these years, we still failed to have a proper humane refugee policy in place and worse, 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, we have failed to recognise this need and to provide a safe space for them. Our treatment and response has been cruel and inhuman. There is no need to mention the ill-treatment that refugees face in Malaysia as it is a well-known fact.

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.

The government champions Palestinian issue at the international stage, but when it comes to refugees at their own shores, they treat them inhumanly.

This is hypocrisy. How could we detain a Rohinga child running from murder, rape and violence from his or her homeland but speak out strongly on Palestinian children being murdered by Israel bombs?

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 a living hell, with cramped spaces, dirty toilets and horrible food.

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 and what sort of abuse they were facing that led to them losing their patience and planning the escape. They cannot be at fault for trying to save themselves from oppression.

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.

Look at the Ukraine crisis and how European countries are coming together to provide shelter for Ukrainian refugees fleeing the war. There is so much to learn from them.

We must ratify the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and amend our laws to provide protection to refugees seeking refuge in our homeland. They should be provided with legal employment opportunities, free healthcare and education and most importantly, not be detained.

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.

UNHCR on the other hand has also failed miserably in its advocacy efforts in Malaysia. More needs to be done by the UNHCR to help improve conditions for refugees here and they need to up the pressure on the Malaysian government.

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.

The Bar Council must also step in to provide legal representation to the refugees being charged in court for fleeing.

There is a serious risk of misjustice here as there exists a language barrier and many of them are also in fear and might be forced by surrounding circumstances to plead guilty.

*Sudhagaran Stanley is an anti-corruption and human rights activist. He is one of the co-founders of the Lifebridge Learning Centre, a school which provides free education to refugee children. He was the former Chairman of the Episcopal Commission for Migrants and Itinerants, Bishop’s Conference of Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei and was also the former Penang Co-ordinator of the Migration Working Group Malaysia. His views expressed here are of his personal opinion as an activist.*