Government must be accountable for deaths in detention centres

Amnesty International Malaysia is alarmed by the Home Minister’s statement in Parliament revealing twenty-three detainees, including two children died in immigration detention centres from January to June 2020. These figures show an increase in the average number of deaths per month, from an average of 3.3 deaths every month between 2016 to September 2019, to an average of 3.8 deaths per month this year.

“Any death in detention should raise concerns, and result in open and transparent investigations. Instead, we know 151 people died in detention between 2016 to September 2019, and yet there have not been meaningful, thorough and public investigations into these deaths, said Katrina Maliamauv, Executive Director of Amnesty International Malaysia.

“What we’ve seen, however, is investigations into whistle-blowers, journalists and those who report on the human rights violations against migrants and in detention centres.”

Amnesty International Malaysia is troubled by the lack of information on the causes of deaths in these cases, as well as inconsistencies in statistics on deaths in immigration detention centres. 

“Without clear and thorough investigations, how will the Malaysian government be accountable to the public, and ensure serious measures to prevent future deaths are put in place? It’s also troubling that the death of 67-year-old Zeawdeen Kadar Masdar, an Indian national, was seemingly not included in this reply to Parliament,” Maliamauv continued.

“Following the death of twenty-three individuals since the start of the year, the Ministry of Home Affairs must be accountable to their families and to the Malaysian public.”

Conditions of immigration detention centres

Amnesty International and numerous human rights organisations have documented the appalling conditions of immigration detention centres in Malaysia for many years. Research conducted, including that of the National Commission of Human Rights (SUHAKAM) in 2018 found these detention centres to be cramped, unsanitary, poorly maintained, and lacking in basic facilities such as clean water and food. First-hand and witness accounts of physical abuse against detainees have also been recorded. 

“These deaths are distressing, but in the absence of meaningful investigation by the government, they are sadly not shocking. Instead of taking actions to address reports of appalling conditions in immigration detention, including by the country’s human rights commission, we see instead an escalation in arrest and detention of migrants and refugees,” said Maliamauv

In recent months, immigration officials and police conducted raids against migrants that have violated the rights of migrants, and undermined COVID-19 preventative measures. Hundreds of detainees were subsequently cramped into detention centres that are often overcrowded, making social distancing impossible to observe. Even though the dangers of such practices were forewarned of by many civil society organisations, sharp increases of infections of COVID-19 in these centres still took place.

“Detention of individuals solely for immigration-related purposes amidst a global pandemic is unjustifiable. We urge the government to open investigations into all deaths that have taken place within immigration detention centres, and to make the findings public. Malaysia should also follow other countries such as the UK and release detainees immediately. Human rights should always be at the centre of our actions and policies, especially during this time of crisis”, concluded Maliamauv.


On 5th August 2020, the Home Ministry, in a written reply to Batu Kawan MP Kasthuri Patto’s parliamentary question, revealed that 18 adult men, three women and two children died in immigration detention centres in Malaysia. Five of the deaths were in Semenyih immigration depot, three deaths each in Langkap, Lenggeng and Pekan Nenas, two in Juru, KLIA and Bukit Jalil and one death each in Ajil and Machap Umboo. The 23 detainees who died were from Indonesia (10), Bangladesh (2), Cambodia (2), Kenya (2), Myanmar (1), Nepal (1), Pakistan (1), Vietnam (1) and Canada (1).

In May 2020, the government conducted at least three large scale raids against undocumented migrants, rounding up hundreds of individuals including young children in downtown Kuala Lumpur, Selayang and PJ Old Town.

On 4th June Health Ministry director-general Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah announced that 270 new cases of COVID-19 were detected at the Bukit Jalil Immigration Detention Depot, making it the largest daily spike since the beginning of the pandemic.

On 3rd July 2020, Al Jazeera released the documentary, “Locked Up in Malaysia’s Lockdown” that documented the mistreatment of migrant workers by Malaysian authorities under the movement control order implemented to respond to COVID-19, as well as the deplorable conditions of immigration detention centres. Its release resulted in the arrest and detention of a migrant worker featured in the documentary, as well as police investigations and a raid conducted against Al-Jazeera and its media workers.