UN rights chief: Malaysia should reinstate UNHCR access to immigration detention centers

Volker Türk also called for the adoption of “a comprehensive refugee protection system.”
Minderjeet Kaur and Iman Muttaqin Yusof
Kuala Lumpur
UN rights chief: Malaysia should reinstate UNHCR access to immigration detention centers Volker Türk, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, speaks to reporters at U.N. headquarters in Putrajaya at the end of his three-day trip to Malaysia, June 4, 2024.
S. Mahfuz/BenarNews

Updated at 11:12 a.m. ET on 2024-06-06. 

The U.N. human rights chief said Tuesday that Malaysia must reinstate access to immigration detention centers for the United Nations refugee agency and others so they could check on alleged “harsh conditions and ill-treatment.”

Talking to reporters at the end of a three-day visit to Malaysia, Volker Türk also said the country needed to find an alternative to immigration detention, particularly for children and groups in vulnerable situations.

“It would be important for the government to adopt a comprehensive refugee protection system, reinforcing the legal status of refugees and enabling their access to employment, formal education, health and other essential services,” he said during a news conference at the U.N office in Putrajaya.

“I also call on the government to reinstate access to detention facilities for national monitoring bodies and UNHCR. I heard worrying accounts from several interlocutors of harsh conditions and ill treatment in detention facilities – reports which need to be investigated,” Türk said, referring to the U.N. refugee agency.

In March, a Human Rights Watch report said Malaysian authorities were treating refugees, migrants and asylum seekers like criminals, and detaining them in overcrowded and “degrading” immigration detention with almost no access to the outside world.

The “prolonged, judicially unsupervised detention” of these foreign detainees violates international human rights law, HRW said in its 60-page report. 

The rights watchdog group also claimed that U.N refugee agency UNHCR had been denied access to the country’s immigration depots since August 2019.

In September, following continued criticism about the presence of children in detention, Malaysian Home Minister Saifuddin Nasution Ismail introduced a program to move children and some of their guardians to new centers that would be guarded around the clock.

But human rights and child welfare activists said the so-called child-friendly shelter was akin to a “golden cage,” because the minors remained confined even at the new location.

Refugee protection 

Türk called for a comprehensive refugee protection plan to end criminalization of migrants and refugees – to offer them better access to health, education and legal aid as “business and human rights issues come together.”

He warned that denying human rights could undermine foreign investments in the country.

“Business and human rights issues were part of our discussions because we know that when it comes to business practices, if business practices are not human-rights oriented, it will harm [foreign investment] in the future,” Türk said.

Malaysia’s nearly 200,000 refugees are not legally allowed to work – many live in appalling conditions, and their children are often denied education. And because the country is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, refugees are viewed as illegal migrants and must pay much higher foreigners’ rates at government hospitals and clinics.

During his visit, Türk met with civil society, migrant and refugee group members along with government officials, including Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim.

He said he heard from many about the desire to ensure the progress is grounded in human rights.

“What [Malaysia] actually needs is a comprehensive look at the whole migration system from the perspective of human rights, because that goes into the issues of labor standards [which] goes into issues of exploitation,” he said. 

Myanmar violence

During their meeting on Monday, Türk said he and Prime Minister Anwar discussed Malaysia’s chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) beginning in 2025, and the post-coup situation in Myanmar, one of the bloc’s 10 member-states.

“Of course, Myanmar is at the heart of the discussion …. How to deal with it when we see that the situation is deteriorating as we speak, is going to be extremely important,” he said.

ASEAN has been trying to help restore democracy and peace in Myanmar after the February 2021 military coup there, but the junta, led by Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, has largely shunned the efforts of the regional bloc.

Meanwhile, pro-democracy activists have formed militias to fight the military in cooperation with ethnic minority insurgent groups, but the violence has displaced about 3 million people, according to U.N. estimates.

“I will discuss this with Laos, the current chair, but it is important to prepare for the chairmanship by Malaysia,” said the U.N. official, who was scheduled to travel to Thailand and Laos next.

Lilianne Fan, director of the Geutanyoe Foundation, an NGO that works with refugees and vulnerable communities in Southeast Asia, said Türk’s meeting with Myanmar refugees spotlighted the seriousness of the situation there.

She pointed to the dramatic escalation in violence against civilians, including children, women, elderly and displaced people, among other developments in Myanmar. “Türk is following the situation there closely and is also very concerned about the spillover effects in the region,” Fan told BenarNews. 

“Türk is following the situation there closely and is also very concerned about the spillover effects in the region.”

James Bawi Thang Bik of the Myanmar Ethnic Organization, who met with Türk on Monday, raised concerns about Burmese refugees in Malaysia, he told BenarNews.

“Why is the Malaysian government denying UNHCR access to detention centers?” he said he told Türk.

“Prior to 2019, UNHCR had access to the [centers] and could get the documentation needed for their release. Now, without access, these refugees are sent back to Myanmar, often to face greater dangers.”

Civil society engagement

Türk heard about domestic concerns as well when he met with a coalition of 60 civil societies, led by Malaysian human rights organizations Suara Rakyat Malaysia (Suaram) and Pusat KOMAS.

On Monday, Malaysia’s Foreign Ministry said Türk’s visit was part of Malaysia’s ongoing engagement with the U.N. to raise human rights awareness.

Among the issues raised were the planned amendments to the Federal Constitution, which some groups called regressive and said would remove the right to Malaysian citizenship for children born to permanent residents.

The coalition also highlighted the Security Offenses (Special Measures) Act 2012 (SOSMA) – the law allowing detention without trial – which was used more in 2023 during arrests.

Civil Society activists also expressed concerns over the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984 used last year to ban LGBTQ-themed watches

Underage marriage remains a contentious issue in Malaysia.

While activists push for the legal marriage age to be set at 18, Islamic family law allows marriages for those younger than 18 with Sharia court approval and civil law permits girls ages 16 and 17 to marry with state chief minister approval.

Activist Adrian Pereira, a member of North-South Initiative, an NGO that focuses on migrant, labor and refugee issues, said attendees saw the meeting as an opportunity for the U.N. to better understand Malaysia’s human rights landscape.

“The challenge post [Türk’s] visit will be significant for the U.N. country team,” Adrian told BenarNews.  

“Now, how can they measure and push for rights-based reforms effectively?” 

This report has been updated to clarify comments by Lillian Fan. 


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