Malaysia’s Home Ministry reported that, as of October 26, 756 children were being held in immigration detention facilities nationwide, including 326 from Myanmar who are detained without parents or guardians.
Malaysia has denied the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) access to immigration facilities since August 2019, leaving the agency unable to determine whether those children and others detained have already been determined to be refugees or are entitled to refugee protection.
"It’s appalling that Malaysia is detaining so many children in overcrowded and unsanitary detention facilities, often without parents or guardians,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director, in a press release on Friday.
"These vulnerable children, including many who likely fled atrocities in Myanmar, should be cared for, not treated as criminals," he added.
The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), to which Malaysia is a party, prohibits the detention of children for immigration reasons.
A 2019 UN global study on children deprived of liberty reported that even if detention conditions are good, detaining children exacerbates existing health conditions and causes new ones, including anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress, and suicidal thoughts.
Detention also exposes children to the risk of sexual abuse and exploitation, even in countries that respect the obligation not to detain children with unrelated adults.
In addition, the UN children’s fund, UNICEF, has called on all governments to release children from detention, specifically including immigration detention, due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
According to HRW, Although Malaysia is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, it is still bound by customary international refugee law.
In April, the Malaysian Navy pushed boatloads of desperate Rohingya refugees who were trying to reach Malaysia’s shores back out to sea, claiming that they were doing so to prevent the spread of Covid-19.
Since May, the authorities have conducted numerous raids, ensnaring thousands of migrants, including children, and detaining them in overcrowded and unsanitary immigration detention centers to await deportation.
The National Task Force commander, Vice-Admiral Aris Adi Tan Abdullah, told local media on November 7 that of the more than 8,000 people detained for immigration violations between May and early November, only 281 had been deported, with the rest remaining in immigration detention centers.
"The spread of Covid-19 makes it even more urgent for the Malaysian government to reassess its practice of detaining migrants, including children," Robertson said.
"Immigration authorities should stop playing games with people’s lives and immediately release all detained children and grant the UN refugee agency access to all detained refugees and asylum seekers," he concluded.