Does Malaysia deserve a seat on the UN Human Rights Council?

Josh Hong

Detention as a way of deterring undocumented migrants is often fraught with human rights violations. It is high time the Malaysian authorities consider alternatives, including granting refugees the right to work and allowing them to live in the community with work and social rights. – Pic courtesy of police, May 2, 2022.

ON April 20, 2022, 528 Rohingya refugees fled an immigration detention depot in Penang state, resulting in the death of six of them, including two children who were killed on a highway.

It was a human tragedy that could have been avoided, and a complete failure on the part of the Malaysian authorities as well as a slap in the face of the country that sits shamelessly on the United Nations Human Rights Council.

Way back in 2016, Suhakam submitted a report highlighting the dilapidated conditions of the Juru and Pekan Nenas immigration detention facilities, while noting that many deaths “were due to chronic health conditions such as tuberculosis, pneumonia and septicaemia”.

It has been widely reported that undocumented detainees are kept in overcrowded cells with insufficient room to move or to sleep, making communicable diseases spread even more easily, such as Covid-19.

Between January and June 2020, first under Pakatan Harapan (PH) and then the Perikatan Nasional (PN) government, 23 undocumented persons died in detention, that is an average of nearly four deaths a month, according to the home minister who revealed it to Parliament in the same year.

The massive – if not also insane and inhuman – crackdowns on the undocumented populations over the past two years have only aggravated the already dire situation, as more and more detainees are being forced into the cramped detention centres.

As of late 2020, there were officially 12 such facilities in the peninsula and Sarawak, with Sabah having its own detention facilities; several temporary detention centres have since been added due to the continued influxes of Rohingya refugees by boat, and also as a consequence of the waves of arrests of undocumented persons across the country.

Both verbal and physical abuses against immigration detainees in Malaysia are well documented in the latest human rights report by Suaram. The 528 Rohingya may well have been instigated by others to flee the detention centre, but it was little wonder that they chose to do so if one truly understood the plight and ordeal that they had to put up with on a daily basis.

Still, the hawkish and conservative Home Minister Hamzah Zainudin continues to issue statements with a view to further confuse the general public whose understanding of the refugee question is miniscule at best.

Fully cognizant of the anti-immigrant and xenophobic sentiment within Malaysian society, his claim that Rohingya refugees in Malaysia had been “treated well”, with food and shelter provided, was pure fantasy, if not concoction, for the so-called shelter was nothing more than the appalling detention centres, where detainees are made to incessantly endure insults and even physical violence by officials.

Thanks to my past work with refugees, I have been to all of the 11 immigration detention centres and hence able to see for myself the horrifying conditions there.

As far as food was concerned, it was basically, and mostly, rice of poor quality served with overcooked kangkung (water spinach) and salted fish. I shall leave it to the reader to decide if it was nutritious enough.

Should the government be so confident of the “humane” conditions of the detention facilities, the best way to convince the critics is to open them up for public scrutiny, including Suhakam, the International Red Cross/Crescent Society, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and even members of Parliament.

The fact is, it was the ostensibly progressive PH government that imposed a ban on visits to immigration detention centres nationwide by the UNHCR in August 2019, for no obvious reason. Who was the home minister at the time? Muhyiddin Yassin, whose records both as home minister and prime minister leave much to be desired.

As for Hamzah, he must thank Dr Mahathir Mohamad for having courted him to cross over from Umno to Bersatu in February 2019, tasked also with enticing more Umno and PAS members of Parliament to join the new Malay party in order to strengthen the elder statesman’s position as prime minister to check against PKR and the DAP.

He was then rewarded with the powerful Home Ministry portfolio after the PH government fell along with Dr Mahathir’s arbitrary resignation.

In short, Hamzah would not have been at where he is today and launching one merciless operation against the undocumented populations after another if not for Dr Mahathir’s folly. But how long can this go on for?

The government should seriously consider alternatives to detention. After all, it is not a crime for people who face persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a particular membership – as spelled out under the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees – to seek asylum in a foreign land.

What if one day we, too, were forced to seek refuge elsewhere in the world? Wouldn’t we want to be treated with dignity and respect in the host country as well?

Detention as a way of deterring undocumented migrants is often fraught with human rights violations, and it is high time the Malaysian authorities consider alternatives, including granting refugees the right to work and allowing them to live in the community with work and social rights.

For instance, Rohingya are well-versed with fishing and agriculture, and they could be employed to work in these two sectors that are heavily dependent on the migrant labour force.

But first and foremost, the UNHCR must be allowed to access all potential refugees in detention and register them, so that proper protection and monitoring could follow.

Refugees could also be placed in a community, with support from social workers who would take care of their needs and help address the challenges that they might face, such as language barriers, skills training and harassment from others, which would in turn increase their participation in meaningful activities as what Canada is doing.

In short, instead of being isolated, demonised, stigmatised and treated with contempt, refugees and asylum-seekers should be encouraged to be part of Malaysian society and contribute to our social life and economy.

The recent episode fully exposes how an allegedly Muslim-centric government has failed a Muslim community, and the only remedy is for the powers-that-be to do some serious soul-searching and prove to the world that Malaysia does indeed deserve a seat on the UN Human Rights Council. – May 2, 2022.

* Josh Hong is a keen watcher of domestic and international politics, who longs for the day when Malaysians master the art of self-mockery. He has spent the last 15 years trying to win his feline friends’ favour as he considers it an endeavour more worthwhile than trusting politicians, aspiring also to be a tea and coffee connoisseur.

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