Deaths in immigration custody must not be trivialised

Josh Hong

It would seem that the authorities have deliberately created inhumane conditions as a punishment for detainees and to introduce a climate of fear to deter undocumented migrants. – The Malaysian Insight file pic, July 4, 2022.

SPEAKING in Putrajaya earlier this week, Home Minister Hamzah Zainudin downplayed reports of deaths in immigration detention centres, saying that people should not be too quick to point fingers at the authorities.

He was also reported saying: “If I knew someone was going to die and therefore should not be placed in an immigration detention centre, I would be great.”

I am again utterly flabbergasted at Hamzah’s lack of compassion. The crux of the matter is the deplorable conditions in the centres nationwide, and the successive governments – including Pakatan Harapan when Muhyiddin Yassin was the home minister – have failed to address the problem (it was Muhyiddin who barred the United Nations refugee agency from visiting asylum-seekers and refugees in detention, in August 2019).

There have been voluminous reports on the cramped and unsanitary conditions in the centres, including those by human rights commission Suhakam.

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

In July 2019, Thomas Orhions Ewansiha, then a 34-year-old Nigerian PhD student, died in Bukit Jalil detention centre.

In its 2019 annual report, Suhakam listed out several contributing factors that might have led to his death, including the failure of the detention centre to provide appropriate medical care, despite having been told of Ewansiha suffered from high blood pressure.

No appropriate high blood pressure cuff was given to the deceased to check his medical conditions upon arrival at the centre.

Most important of all, Ewansiha was arrested even though he had valid documentation.

If fact, Deputy Home Minister Ismail Mohamed Said revealed to Parliament in March this year that, from 2018 to 15 February 2022, 208 people had died in detention centres nationwide, 25 of which were from Covid-19, while the rest were due to other illnesses: septic shock, tuberculosis, severe pneumonia, lung infection, heart complications, dengue, diabetes, shortness of breath and organ failure.

Hamzah is also avoiding another issue: allegations of torture in detention centres.

As home minister, he needs to investigate thoroughly whether any of the deaths were caused by ill treatment or even torture, and find ways to rectify the problem, instead of beating around the bush, sweeping the issue under the carpet or, worse, rubbing salt into the wound of the deceased’s families with heartless remarks.

Detainees may have violated our immigration law, but it doesn’t mean that they should be denied their basic human rights such as access to a safe environment, clean water, decent food and healthcare.

It is therefore the government’s duty to ensure that the detention centres are safe and hygienic.

Since the government knows it is going to arrest undocumented migrants and put them in detention, why doesn’t it ensure a safe, hygienic and humane environment?

Hamzah’s response is akin to saying patients who die in poorly maintained and unsanitary hospitals only have themselves to blame.

Hence, it would seem that the authorities have deliberately created inhumane conditions as a punishment for detainees and to introduce a climate of fear to deter undocumented migrants, as rightly pointed out by the Indonesia-based Coalition of Sovereign Migrant Workers, which recently revealed 149 people had died in detention over the past 18 months.

Another reason for the pathetic response of the authorities lies in the lack of understanding and even sympathy on the part of the Malaysian populace.

For years, we have been seeing undocumented migrants as a “threat” to our national security and even the root cause of crime, despite the abundant evidence that they are subject to exploitation by various sectors especially plantation, construction and manufacturing.

In Sabah, the situation is particularly acute due to the significant presence of undocumented populations dating back to the 1970s.

The siege mentality and sense of defencelessness were further entrenched with the subsequent manipulation by politicians especially the ignominious Project IC under the Mahathir regime that resulted in sharp increases in undocumented migrants from southern Philippines.

Therefore, in a climate as such, it is all the harder to address human rights issues concerning migrants and the powers-that-be are thus able to act with impunity.

It is, of course, not true to say that Malaysia has not been making any effort to ensure the safety of migrants in our midst.

For instance, the Human Resources Ministry has rolled out the Working For Workers application, a platform for workers to report grievances and other work issues directly to the Labour Department, and launched the National Action Plan on Forced Labour.

As for the Home Affairs Ministry, the recently amended Anti-Trafficking in Persons and Anti-Smuggling of Migrants Act now allows eight members of civil society groups to be included in the Council for Anti-Trafficking in Persons and Anti-Smuggling of Migrants (Mapo), of whom five persons are with experience, knowledge and expertise in solving problems and issues related to trafficking in persons, while the other three are well-versed in issues related to smuggling of migrants.

All this clearly indicates the readiness of the government to engage more stakeholders in responding to the challenge.

Still, when it comes to the appalling conditions in the detention centres, constructive and healthy co-operation with wider society can only happen if the government is willing to acknowledge the severity of the issue, and statements by government ministers that contradict the existing policies certainly do not help.

Judging from Hamzah’s latest remarks, we are still a long way off from addressing it collectively. – July 4, 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.

* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight. Article may be edited for brevity and clarity.

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