In December, Rafiullah’s fears came true when his 14-year-old nephew was caught entering Malaysia on foot and detained.
The boy is now one of 756 children the Malaysian Home Secretary is believed to have detained across the country on October 26, and like 405 of them, Rafiullah’s nephew is alone.
“This is the time my nephew should be studying, but he has to serve his sentence,” Rafiullah, a Rohingya refugee from Myanmar, told Al Jazeera. “I fear his life will be destroyed.”
The Malaysian government has worked with civil society for years on alternatives to detaining children with an immigrant background – focusing on those who are alone or have been separated from their families – but progress has been slow. Meanwhile, hundreds of children languish in detention, which experts say can affect their physical and psychological well-being.
“Whether a child is accompanied or unaccompanied, whether a refugee or an undocumented migrant worker, they are always children,” Professor Noor Aziah, Malaysian Human Rights Commission Commissioner for Children, told Al Jazeera. male, known by his Malaysian acronym SUHAKAM. “The government must make the best interests of children a top priority.”
Rafiullah, who had warned his relatives in Myanmar’s Rakhine state not to make the perilous journey to join him, was alarmed in September 2019 to learn that his two nephews, both primary school students, had disappeared from their home. town.
Three months later, he received a call from a human trafficker in Thailand, demanding 16,000 Malaysian ringgit ($ 3,900) for each child so that they could complete the trip to Malaysia. The boys’ families paid the ransom, but only one of Rafiullah’s nephews made it to Kuala Lumpur. The other telephoned Rafiullah’s relative to inform him that he was being held in a detention center in Kelantan State, in northeast Malaysia. The family have not been able to reach him since and have not received any information on when he might be released.
Rafiullah told Al Jazeera he called the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR to ask for help in advocating for his nephew’s release, but he received no response.
Al Jazeera contacted UNHCR and learned that the agency does not make public comments on individual cases, but that when the detention of vulnerable people, such as children, comes to their attention and these people need ” international protection, UNHCR will advocate with the relevant government agencies for immediate access and urgent release.
UNHCR faces a critical hurdle, however: Malaysia has denied the agency access to the country’s migrant detention centers since August 2019, leaving it unable to meet asylum seekers and refugees who may have been detainees and assess their protection needs. “We are aware and concerned that a number of concerned people, including vulnerable people, who need our attention remain in detention,” Thomas Albrecht, who heads the UNHCR office in Kuala Lumpur, told Al Jazeera.
Almost 180,000 refugees are registered with the agency in Malaysia, the vast majority from Myanmar, while thousands more await registration. But Malaysia, which is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, does not have a legal framework for refugees, which makes them vulnerable to detention as undocumented migrants. Almost 1,000 unaccompanied and separated refugee and asylum-seeking children were registered with UNHCR in 2018.
Malaysia’s immigration laws also do not distinguish children from adults, leaving children under adult arrest and detention conditions and without access to education or games. Children under 12 are held with adult women, while boys over 13 are held with adult men, according to SUKA Society, a Malaysian children’s rights organization.
SUHAKAM documented 118 deaths in migrant detention between 2015 and 2016, while in 2017 Reuters reported that former detainees, government agencies and rights groups spoke of overcrowding, poor sanitary conditions , limited access to nutritious food or health care, and beatings by camp guards. Noor Aziah, the children’s commissioner, told Al Jazeera that overcrowding, the lack of separate facilities for children and families, and the lack of arrangements for education or play remained critical concerns.
A 2019 United Nations Global Study of Children Deprived of Liberty found that detaining children can lead to significant physical and mental health problems. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Malaysia is a party, prohibits the detention of children for immigration reasons, and the Malaysian Child Act 2001 states that the best interests of the child must be a priority.
According to results released by UNICEF in 2018, the detention of children in migrant detention is never in their best interests and should be avoided at all costs. In addition to violating children’s rights, it is costly, difficult to administer, and rarely effective in deterring or managing migration.
Alternatives under discussion
In November, Human Rights Watch called on Malaysia to immediately release all detained children and grant UNHCR access to detained refugees and asylum seekers. “These vulnerable children, many of whom have likely fled atrocities in Myanmar, should be cared for and not treated like criminals,” Phil Robertson, deputy director for Asia, said in a statement.
Initiatives promoting alternatives to detention have been underway for years. In 2014, the Malaysian Immigration Department, along with SUHAKAM and various governmental and non-governmental organizations, formed a working group to implement alternatives to detention for unaccompanied and separated children. The group developed standard operating procedures for a pilot program providing temporary shelter and case management services through local non-governmental organizations.
A proposal to implement the pilot project with five children was submitted to the Malaysian cabinet in 2018, but approval has yet to be granted, according to Tini Zainuddin, co-founder of Yayasan Chow Kit, the organization nominated for. take responsibility for accommodating children during the pilot.
SUHAKAM’s Noor Aziah told Al Jazeera that earlier this year, the Women’s Ministry showed support for the pilot project, but the change of government in February and the pandemic left the process in limbo.
“Unaccompanied children should have alternatives to detention,” she said. “They are just victims. They cannot be guilty of any offense because their parents made the decision to send them to Malaysia. “
Al Jazeera has contacted Malaysia’s Home Office and Immigration Department for comment, but has not received a response.
Malaysia has stepped up immigration-related arrests since May, when raids left more than 2,000 detained. In total, more than 8,000 people were detained for immigration violations between May 1 and November 9. At least five migrant detention centers have also seen outbreaks of the coronavirus, with 776 cases reported in May and June. There are 11 detention centers scattered around the Malaysian Peninsula.
In April and May, citing coronavirus prevention measures, Malaysian authorities repeatedly turned back boats that had sailed from refugee camps in Bangladesh, carrying hundreds of Rohingya refugees seeking asylum; dozens are believed to have died at sea. On June 8, authorities intercepted a damaged boat of Rohingya asylum seekers off the coast of Langkawi Island and arrested the 269 surviving passengers.
Ibrahim, a Rohingya refugee in Kelantan, believes his wife, brother and two children, aged 12 and eight, were on board.
Ibrahim, whose son was just a toddler and unborn daughter when he left for Malaysia from a refugee camp in Bangladesh in 2012, paid smugglers in February to bring his family to join him. He has not been able to contact them since, but said he received a phone call from an NGO shortly after the boat was intercepted, informing him of his family’s detention, and that he recognized a photo of her son on the news. He sent two letters to UNHCR, but said he received no response.
“My children wanted to study, but now they don’t have the chance,” Ibrahim told Al Jazeera. “I want my wife and children to be released … so that at least we can live together.”
* Pseudonyms were used for Rafiullah and Ibrahim to protect their safety.
Jaw Tu Hkawng contributed to this report.