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A foreign worker in Malaysia is scanned for a biometric ID at an immigration office. Those who fall foul of immigration rules have told of harsh treatment in holding cells. Photo: AFP

Malaysia’s secret ‘hell’: victims of violence, extortion and abuse of power in immigration detention centres tell their stories

Detainees tell shocking tales of beatings, humiliation, corruption and intimidation at the hands of immigration officers; a Malaysia-based human rights group says such abuse is a daily occurrence


A Malaysian immigration officer’s physical assault of a foreign national who appeared to be of South Asian origin, captured on a mobile phone in Johor Bahru near the Singapore border, led to swift retribution. After the video went viral on social media in early June, it was reported that the officer had been suspended and would probably lose his job.

Malaysians were outraged at the mistreatment meted out on the foreigner – a departure from the scorn Malaysians usually heap on migrant workers from South Asia in the country.

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The incident, in which the irritated officer slapped the visitor across the head with his passport before hitting his hands on the counter, is just the tip of the iceberg, according to Tenaganita, a Malaysia-based human rights group.

Away from public view, in the country’s immigration detention centres, abuse is a daily occurrence, Glorene A. Das, an executive director of Tenaganita, tells the Post. People denied entry to the country are also deprived of their basic rights, and left defenceless against the whims of the officers in charge, she says.

In another case last month, Singaporean traveller Joshua Lee, who was visiting Malaysia for an e-sports tournament, describes on Facebook how he “entered hell” when immigration officers at Kuala Lumpur International Airport detained him because his passport was due to expire in less than six months.

A note written by detainee ‘Walter’ listing his experiences and observations at Kuala Lumpur International Airport detention centre.

During his 26-hour detention, he was denied use of his phone and crammed into a foul-smelling cell with more than 100 other detainees. He claims in his post – which has been shared 1,500 times – that he witnessed a brutal assault.

“Also first time I see officers beating up an innocent man. This Indian was just asking questions and I guessed the officers were annoyed by that? So 5 of them came in … and beat the living s*** out of him in front of all the people there,” he writes.

Lee also says in his post that he was released only after his father called the authorities when he repeatedly failed to answer his phone. Though he accepts that he is to blame for not renewing his passport, he says others he shared a cell with were being detained for reasons as arbitrary as carrying payments cards instead of cash. The way they were treated was shocking, he says.

Travellers form long queues as they enter Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Malaysia from Singapore. Photo: Alamy

In May, Daniel, a 21-year-old transgender man from northern Africa who requests anonymity to protect his privacy, flew to Kuala Lumpur from Jakarta. He was stopped at passport control and sent to the immigration office. There, an officer immediately began yelling questions at him without giving him an opportunity to answer, he says.

He was refused entry to Malaysia but given no reason for the decision. Daniel tells the Post it was not safe for him to return to his home country because of his gender status. He had an appointment with the United Nations’ organisation for refugees in Kuala Lumpur scheduled for the following day, but immigration staff were not interested.

Daniel says once the staff became aware that he was a transgender man, he was outed in front of “literally everybody”. Officers called their colleagues over to stare at him, yelled, poked fun and threatened him with physical violence. His baggage and phone were confiscated, and when he asked for a drink of water he was yelled at and told to sit down.

Immigration department personnel participate in the Malaysia Independence Day parade. Photo: Alamy

Daniel says that after five hours passed he approached the counter to ask how much longer he would be waiting. The officer responded aggressively: “Are you male or female?” When Daniel replied that it had nothing to do with his question, the officer and his colleagues stood up and started screaming at him for being rude.

“They were humiliating me over and over again, asking me the most uncomfortable questions,” Daniel says.

This Indian was just asking questions and I guessed the officers were annoyed by that? So 5 of them came in … and beat the living s*** out of him in front of all the people there
Singaporean detainee Joshua Lee

Daniel avoided the cells Lee describes. He slept on a chair next to the immigration office’s toilet overnight. At 5am the following day, he was given his first food since being detained. Whenever he requested updates he was screamed at and threatened with violence.

After about 36 hours, Daniel was returned to Indonesia, where he was detained again.

Walter, a South African national who also requests anonymity, was also refused entry after arriving at the airport in Kuala Lumpur in May. Walter, who had been travelling around Asia for six months, was detained in a holding cell.

“The conditions in the cell were disgusting,” he says. “The toilet was an open space for all to see, even those outside the room. The whole room smelled of urine and faeces. We had to sleep on the cold, dirty cement floor, and they don’t offer any vegetarian food so I couldn’t eat. They only offered a bottle of water.”

Like Daniel and Lee, Walter was denied all communication with the outside world. “No one knew where I was for 24 hours and I wasn’t allowed to speak to family, friends or [a representative from] my country. When I pushed further and asked why, two officers threatened me and told me to shut up and sit down.”

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He says he also witnessed the night shift supervisor offering detainees the opportunity to bribe their way out. Two men each paid him 3,500 ringgit (US$860) and their paperwork was processed on the spot. “They were released immediately and sent back to where they came from,” Walter says.

Walter says one officer was particularly brutal, turning on an ethnic Indian man who had been laughing during a private conversation with a friend. The man was “kicked repeatedly in the face and ribs, [and] punched in the face and groin”. The officer told them: “You’re not allowed to be happy. You need to be sad, because this is jail, and you’re all criminals.”

“I committed no crime. I never overstayed my visa and did not participate in any illegal activities. I provided them with proof that I was travelling, but all my evidence was rejected and I had to go through this horrific ordeal,” says Walter, who was also returned to Jakarta after being detained for 24 hours.

He also notes that none of the officers were wearing name tags.

Das from Tenaganita, which focuses particularly on the rights of women and migrant workers, said in an emailed response to the Post that conditions in immigration holding centres at Kuala Lumpur International Airport and elsewhere in Malaysia are deplorable and intolerable.

Passengers who arrive in Malaysia without everything in order face detention in crowded, insanitary cells and the risk of violence. Photo: Alamy

“Tenaganita, in its work with migrants and refugees, is faced daily with such problems, and has also received and heard cases of abuse, extortion of money, and trafficking of persons while in holding centres/detention camps. The continuous arrest, detention and violent treatment … have threatened the lives of thousands.”

Living conditions in the Malaysian camps are grim – overcrowded, unhygienic and brutal, she says.

“Almost all the detainees in the [Kuala Lumpur airport’s] holding centres and detention centres are charged for being undocumented – an administrative offence with administrative detention. But they are treated worse than criminals with criminal detention.”

A number of the victims were detained at Kuala Lumpur International Airport. Photo: Alamy

Das highlights a report published in 2017 that revealed more than 100 foreigners in Malaysia’s immigration centres had died in the preceding two years as a result of “various diseases and unknown causes”. More than half of the victims were ethnic Rohingya refugees escaping persecution in Myanmar.

Das says that although the authorities vowed to investigate the deaths, no progress has so far been reported.

“The BN [Barisan Nasional] government was in a state of denial. It is crucial for the current PH [Pakatan Harapan] government to hold an independent inquiry into the said deaths and the violent treatment as a criminal matter,” Das says.

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The Pakatan Harapan coalition, headed by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, took the reins of government after winning the general election on May 9. “It is also so crucial to improve the overall conditions of the centres, and not to fall back stating that the budget is a constraint,” Das says.

“With the home ministry’s recent crackdown on undocumented migrant workers and refugees, which saw 1,475 undocumented people and 28 employers arrested between July 1 and 6 in 595 operations nationwide, where and how these detainees would be treated is of great concern.”

Speaking from Canada, where he is now safe, Daniel says: “I would love the world to know what happens in Malaysia behind closed doors – the side you cannot see.”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Behind closed doors