A few weeks ago, I joined a small group who was donating supplies to the detainees and staff of one of Malaysia’s 14 detention centres for migrants deemed to have committed immigration offences and awaiting deportation to their home countries.
I had seen and heard stories about what goes on in these camps, which come under the ambit of the Home Ministry. Reports of maltreatment and unsanitary conditions are easily found online, and this particular camp had been condemned by Amnesty International. In board meetings of organisations that deal with stateless and refugee children, I heard these centres being harrowingly described, too.
It was with such knowledge I visited the Lenggeng Immigration Depot. Upon arrival, I was welcomed by the camp commandant in their main hall, filled with about 100 seats occupied by both staff and detainees. After a brief introduction, young mothers with babies came forward to receive boxes of diapers and baby formula (children over the age of 12 are detained separately from their mothers, and it is for them Alternatives to Detention are most urgently sought). I asked them where they were from, how long they have been in Malaysia and how they ended up in the detention camp. Their stories were similar — mostly from Indonesia, they came as maids years ago but were caught in immigration raids.
After that, I met a group of young men who received essential supplies. I asked them the same questions, and again the predominant answer was that they were simply here to seek a better life, escaping places where they felt they had no opportunities, or were being persecuted. Away from the officers, I asked what it was like being at the camp: how long they had been there (typically several months to a year), how often they could leave the premises (hardly ever), if they were ever mistreated (“no”) and how often they are visited by representatives either from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) or diplomats from their embassies (every few weeks).
The last part is important. If they are entitled to — and can physically obtain — a card from the UNHCR recognising them as a refugee, they can obtain some protection and services that would otherwise be denied (despite Malaysia not having signed the 1951 UN refugee convention), for example at government hospitals. The Malaysian government stopped funding the deportation of illegal foreigners in 2014, and centres across the country have since been at maximum capacity.
I then visited the on-site clinic, where a doctor from the Health Ministry is permanently stationed to serve both the staff and detainees. The facility seemed clean and well stocked.
Then, I was shown the blocks where the detainees are housed, essentially composed of large halls each with dozens of people arranged in rows. Like in a Malaysian classroom, they greeted the visiting party synchronously (though less melodiously), and a representative (somehow chosen from among them) told us the countries of origin of those present. I asked what they can do for entertainment — there is a central courtyard in which they are periodically let out to do exercises. In the women’s block, we encountered three women who spoke excellent English. They said they had escaped the Syrian civil war and were hopeful of getting their UNHCR cards and being released soon.
It struck me the women’s block had much more light and air than the men’s block. A function of simple architecture, but apparently not a priority of whoever designed it. In my various roles, I get to visit many institutions that keep our country going, but I have to say this was not a happy place.
Yet, it is not easy to square the competing demands that drive the existence of such places: from Malaysians who perceive illegal immigrants as dangerous and expect the state to provide protection from them to industry sectors who say migrant workers are vital for economic development, bureaucrats who say they are just trying to follow the law, humanitarian groups who want Malaysia to live up to its obligations towards refugees and organisations like Yayasan Chow Kit and Ideas Academy that focus on the blameless children who are the victims of civil war, bad governance and failed diplomacy.
But the adults, too, are victims of disjointed policy at a national and regional level. There needs to be holistic thinking from humanitarian, security, bureaucratic, diplomatic and — if we are to continue to have such centres — architectural perspectives in order to make prospects better for those who, through no fault of their own, have to make Malaysia their second home.
Tunku Zain Al-’Abidin is founding president of Ideas