A growing number of immigrants from Myanmar are ending up stuck, often for months, in crowded detention centers in Malaysia designed to hold people for only a few weeks.
Almost 2,800 Myanmarese were detained at camps in July, more
than double the 1,200 in January, partly because of a crackdown on
human trafficking, a step-up in raids and a slow economy that
leaves the migrants without jobs. People from Myanmar, a
desperately poor country with a military junta, are now the biggest
group among the 7,000 foreigners at detention centers in Malaysia.
At a center near the Kuala Lumpur International Airport, some
120 men sat in neat rows on the floor. Many had their legs drawn to
their chests, and all were barefoot. There was not enough space and
not enough bedding.
"There is no soap for taking a shower, nothing. They don't give
us anything," said Kyaw Zin Lin, 23, who said he fled to avoid
being drafted into the Myanmar army. "Every day we eat the food
just to survive. ... They treat us like animals."
"It's very difficult to stay here," said Aung Kuh The, a pale
26-year-old. "We have got a lot of problems. Some people, you
know, we want to see the doctor but we don't have the chance."
One reason for the rise in detainees is a crackdown on
trafficking. A report published in April by the U.S. Senate
Committee on Foreign Relations cited firsthand accounts of
Myanmarese who said immigration officers turned them over to
That practice has all but stopped, Myanmar community leaders in
Now, though, the Myanmarese are trapped in detention. The
Myanmar embassy often takes six months to register its citizens for
deportation and charges them 620 ringgit ($180), much more than
neighboring Indonesia. By contrast, detainees from other countries
are typically deported within a week.
Calls to the Myanmar embassy were repeatedly put on hold and
About half the Myanmarese - those fleeing persecution - may
qualify for U.N. refugee status, but that process takes up to four
months. The others are economic migrants. Some 140,000 Myanmarese
work in Malaysia, but foreign workers who are laid off lose the
right to stay.
Some Myanmarese have spent more than six months in crowded,
dirty detention centers. One man, whose brother was in detention
for four months, said he would rather be sold to traffickers from
whom he could buy his freedom.
"I prefer to be trafficked," said the man, who would only be
identified by his nickname, Ryan, to protect his relatives in
Myanmar. "I don't mind paying 2,000 ringgit ($570)."
Five of Malaysia's 13 detention centers are overcrowded; four of
the five have large Myanmarese populations, according to the
immigration department. Journalists from The Associated Press
accompanied the human rights group Amnesty International on a rare
visit recently to three detention centers just south of Kuala
Lumpur, the country's biggest city.
At the Lenggeng Detention Depot, 1,400 people are crammed into
dormitories meant for 1,200. Of them about 300 are from Myanmar.
Hundreds of men jostle each other for room in the bare
dormitories. One sleeps on a stone ledge in a bathroom. Each
dormitory is fenced by wire mesh and barbed wire, giving detainees
just a few meters (feet) of space for walking.
"The detention centers we saw fell short of international
standards in many respects, as the immigration authorities
themselves acknowledge," said Michael Bochenek of Amnesty
International. "It's a facility of such size that infectious
diseases are communicated readily."
Saw Pho Tun, a refugee community leader, said some immigration
officers have singled out Myanmarese detainees for rough treatment,
beating them and not allowing them medical assistance. Immigration
officials deny beating detainees and say everyone has access to
On July 1, detainees at another center flung their food trays
and damaged some of the mesh fence. Immigration officials blamed
the riot on frustration about having to stay so long, but detainees
say they rioted because they were afraid of abuse.
Most of the blocks have now been shut for repairs, so more than
1,000 detainees - including 700 from Myanmar - were transferred ot
other already crowded centers.
Abdul Rahman Othman, the director general of the Immigration
Department, said he was taking steps to prevent his officers from
being "entangled" in trafficking syndicates. He said officers
would be rotated to different posts every three years and have a
buddy system to supervise each other.
"Ninety-nine percent of us in immigration are good people," he
said, denying the problem is widespread.
Police arrested five officers on trafficking allegations last
month. They say their investigations revealed immigration officials
took Myanmar immigrants to the Thai border and sold them for up to
600 ringgit ($170) to traffickers. The traffickers then told the
migrants to pay 2,000 ringgit ($570) for their freedom, or they
would be forced to work in the fishing industry, police said.
Myanmar community leaders said women who failed to pay were sold into prostitution.
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