Malaysian officials said Thursday they had detected a coronavirus cluster at the main immigration detention center in Kuala Lumpur after 35 detainees tested positive for COVID-19, the first time authorities have announced any cases at such facilities.
In Geneva, meanwhile, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on migrant rights called on Malaysia to halt what he described as an ongoing crackdown on migrants, after weeks of round-ups and arrests in the name of curbing the spread of the virus.
Hundreds of foreign detainees at the center were tested. The infected ones consisted of 17 Myanmar nationals, 15 Indians, a Bangladeshi, a Sri Lankan, and an Egyptian, said Noor Hisham Abdullah, Malaysia’s director-general of health.
“I would like to inform you that there is a new cluster detected at the Bukit Jalil Immigration Detention Depot. Until noon on May 21, 2020, around 645 individuals had their samples taken. From there, 35 tested positive, 400 tested negative while 210 more are still awaiting results,” he told reporters during a daily COVID-19 briefing.
Authorities have implemented measures to contain the outbreak at the center, including disinfecting the site, and ensuring that people housed there practice social distancing and wash their hands frequently, Noor said.
Malaysia has 14 detention centers, which can accommodate some 13,000 detainees. The Bukit Jalil facility has the capacity to hold 1,500 people, according to two Malaysian immigration officials who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
The 35 who tested positive had stayed at the center since before Malaysia imposed a COVID-19 lockdown, known as the Movement Control Order (MCO), on March 18, and they were not tested for the virus before first entering the facility, according to Noor.
The Ministry of Health announced the cluster of infections two days after Myanmar said that at least five of its nationals had tested positive for the virus after being deported from Malaysia.
Last week, Myanmar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a Facebook post that 391 Myanmar migrant workers had been expelled from Malaysia.
Aung Zaw Min, the labor attaché at Myanmar’s Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, said the workers had been stranded at detention centers in Malaysia for months due to a suspension of flights and the lockdown, according to a report published on Monday by The Irrawaddy, a Myanmar newspaper.
Noor Hisham said the tests were conducted after the government was told that some of the deported people had tested positive for the coronavirus.
“We were informed about it through the Health Regulatory Authority, and we have conducted screening and tests on those who are still here. Some of them exhibit symptoms,” he said.
Malaysian authorities were still investigating the source of the infection at Bukit Jalil, Noor said.
Malaysia’s policy on rounding up migrants during the health crisis has been widely criticized.
On Thursday, Felipe González Morales, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, added his voice to the criticism.
“I am alarmed by what is happening in Malaysia after the initially positive attitude of the government towards an inclusive response to the pandemic,” he said.
“The current crackdown and hate campaign are severely undermining the effort to fight the pandemic in the country,” he added, referring to xenophobia directed at migrants.
During the pandemic, members of the Rohingya refugee community in Malaysia have been targets of hate speech on social media in the country.
“We urge the Malaysian authorities to refrain from raiding locked-down areas to arrest and detain migrants.”
On Thursday, Malaysia reported 50 new coronavirus infections, bringing the nationwide total at to 7,059. No new deaths were reported, but 114 people in the country have died after being infected with COVID-19.
More than 5 million cases have been detected worldwide resulting in close to 330,000 deaths, according to the latest data compiled by disease experts at Johns Hopkins University in the United States.