The Malaysian government’s perpetuation of malicious narratives against Rohingya refugees has heightened since the escape of 528 detainees from the Sungai Bakap Immigration Detention Depot on 20 April. The Malaysian government must immediately drop its deeply damaging narrative towards Rohingya refugees in order to protect their security and wellbeing, said ARTICLE 19.
The reckless and discriminatory comments of Hamzah Zainudin, the Minister of Home Affairs—including a senseless call for refugees to leave Malaysia ‘if they want freedom’—raises urgent concerns about the government’s commitment to protect human rights, including the rights to equality, non-discrimination, non-refoulement, life, liberty, and security of person. Hamzah Zainudin’s words likely contributed to the wave of hate speech towards Rohingya refugees that subsequently circulated on social media.
“The use of hateful rhetoric by authorities following the events of 20 April highlights the persisting discrimination and xenophobia perpetuated by people in power against migrants, including Rohingya refugees,” said Nalini Elumalai, ARTICLE 19’s Senior Malaysia Program Officer. “It is dangerous to underestimate the risk that discriminatory and dehumanising language poses to Rohingya refugees. Public figures should set an example by condemning, not promoting, the discrimination that Rohingya refugees face in Malaysia.”
On 20 April 2022, 528 Rohingya refugees escaped from the Sungai Bakap Immigration Detention Depot in Northern Malaysia following a protest. Tragically, the events led to the accidental death of six refugees as they fled. The refugees had been held in the centre for up to two years since arriving in Malaysian waters in 2020. The incident raises serious concerns about conditions in immigration detention centres and the ability of detainees to effectively raise concerns about these conditions. There have been previous reports of deaths in immigration detention due to lack of access to healthcare and poor conditions. The Sungai Bakap centre was housing 664 refugees including 137 children. Villagers reported some of the escaped refugees approaching them for water, complaining of thirst—escalating concerns about the treatment of the refugees in the centre.
ARTICLE 19 is deeply concerned by the statements of the Minister of Home Affairs following the break-out, including his assertion that detention is a deterrent to warn other refugees from entering the country. His words show a complete lack of empathy for the plight of refugees forced to flee their home countries and a fundamental misunderstanding of Malaysia’s obligations under international law to protect refugees. The rights to equality, non-discrimination, non-refoulement, life, liberty, and security of person are rights protected by customary international law, binding on all states, and reflected in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The Minister hypothesised that being held in a cramped space was a possible reason for the break-out, raising further concern about the conditions of detention. However, he has thus far failed to address the treatment of refugees within the Sungai Bakap Immigration Detention Depot (and other centres) that led to the events of 20 April, nor has he provided any assurance that the rights of the refugees—including the right to access adequate healthcare—are being upheld. The Minister went further and said that he will review the issuance of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) cards to the Rohingya refugees that are seeking asylum in Malaysia.
Of serious concern, the UNHCR has not received approval from Malaysian immigration authorities to access any immigration detention centres in the country since August 2019. The prolonged detention of detainees, including children, is an acute concern. According to the International Detention Coalition, ‘under international law, immigration detention is only meant to be used as a last resort and where it is necessary, reasonable, and proportionate to a legitimate government objective.’
ARTICLE 19’s Hate Speech Toolkit provides a guide to identifying ‘hate speech’ and how to effectively counter it while protecting the rights to freedom of expression and equality. The toolkit highlights the importance of government officials in recognising and responding to intolerance and discrimination, including instances of ‘hate speech’.
UN Human Rights Council Resolution 16/18 calls on states to speak out ‘against intolerance, including advocacy of religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence.’ On 14 October 2021, the UN General Assembly elected Malaysia to join the Human Rights Council from 2022 to 2024. Malaysia should show its commitment to human rights by implementing the resolutions of the Council, including those made in Resolution 16/18.
“The government could enhance the public’s understanding of refugees by using an inclusive narrative instead of cultivating public hostility through the isolating dichotomy of ‘us vs them’ that it currently perpetuates,” said Nalini Elumalai. “Authorities must ensure the rights of all people, including refugees, are upheld on its soil and in its waters. They must immediately allow humanitarian actors access to immigration detention centres and permit SUHAKAM to carry out an independent investigation into the concerning conditions at the Sungai Bakap Immigration Detention Depot.”
For more information
Nalini Elumalai, Senior Malaysia Program Officer at ARTICLE 19, [email protected].