An international human rights watchdog group urged Malaysia on Friday to free 756 children being held in immigration detention centers – often unaccompanied by their parents or guardians – saying this was tantamount to abuse.
Detaining children exposes them to the risk of sexual abuse and exploitation, particularly if minors are kept in custody alongside unrelated adults, Human Rights Watch said. Many of the boys and girls in Malaysian immigration custody are from Myanmar, the New York-based group said.
“It’s appalling that Malaysia is detaining so many children in overcrowded and unsanitary detention facilities, often without parents or guardians,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at HRW, said in a statement that called on the government to “end abusive” detention of minors.
“These vulnerable children, including many who likely fled atrocities in Myanmar, should be cared for, not treated as criminals.”
He was referring to ethnic Rohingya refugees, hundreds of thousands of whom fled abroad to escape a brutal military crackdown in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, beginning in August 2017.
The coronavirus pandemic makes it more urgent than ever that these foreign children are released from detention, Robertson said.
According to the Ministry of Home Affairs, 756 children were being detained in immigration centers nationwide as of Oct. 26, including 326 children from Myanmar who were being confined without their parents or guardians. A total of 405 children who are detained don’t have parents or guardians with them, according to information from the ministry given to parliament in a recent response to a lawmaker’s question.
The children in detention range in age from 0 to 17 years old, the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) told BenarNews.
Meanwhile, Malaysia has denied the U.N. refuge agency (UNHCR) access to immigration facilities for more than a year now, preventing United Nations officials from swiftly identifying asylum seekers who are entitled to refugee protection, HRW said.
On Monday, UNHCR’s Malaysia office told BenarNews that its officials had not been allowed into immigration detention centers since September 2019, and the government had not given a reason for denying them access to the facilities.
According to Suhakam, the previous Pakatan Harapan government, in September 2019, decided not to allow UNHCR into immigration detention centers.
“The Perikatan Nasional government carried on that policy. To be honest, I don’t understand why,” Noor Aziah Mohd Awal, Suhakam’s children’s commissioner, told BenarNews, referring to Malaysia’s current government.
BenarNews contacted the Immigration Department of Malaysia and the Ministry of Home Affairs but officials did not immediately respond.
‘Violated the law’
Malaysia is a party to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which prohibits the detention of children for reasons of immigration, Human Rights Watch noted in its statement.
The rights group cited a 2019 U.N. global study, which showed that detaining children exacerbates their existing health problems and causes new ones – such as anxiety and depression – even when the detention conditions are relatively decent.
The Malaysian government has violated the convention by keeping children in immigration centers, Suhakam’s Noor Aziah said, referring to the U.N. convention.
Suhakam, she said, had written to the Immigration Department of Malaysia, the home ministry and the National Security Council to tell them that their detention of children violated the U.N. convention.
The immigration department “claimed they are illegal immigrants, because when they arrived they were without UNHCR cards or visitor visas,” Noor Aziah said.
The Suhakam commissioner said she had visited several immigration detention centers, which were not suitable for children.
“The centers are overcrowded. Although immigration officers try their best to keep the children occupied, there is no schooling or space for them to play,” Noor Aziah said.
The children are being denied their right to an education, a family environment, medical care, and a chance to assimilate in society, she said.
Detaining children at immigration centers, especially without their parents, is unacceptable and “unconscionable,” according to Katrina Jorene Maliamauv, executive director of Amnesty International Malaysia.
“This would be shocking at any time, let alone in the middle of a pandemic,” Maliamauv told BenarNews.
“The rights of all children in Malaysia must be protected by the state, regardless of their ethnicity, nationality, or immigration status. This should not be up for debate.”