Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – Still elated by the birth of their first child, the couple prepared to leave the maternity ward of Kuala Lumpur General Hospital. But when Sin Sin, 29, and her husband Za Tim, 32, stepped out of the hospital lift with their two-day-old son, immigration officers were waiting.
There's already fear within many communities. This could encourage women to give birth in unsafe conditions.
Forcibly separating them from Za Tim – a refugee from Myanmar registered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Malaysia – the officers bundled the mother and child into a waiting vehicle and drove them to a barren lock-up, with limited access to water and no medical care.
“I can’t express what was going through my mind,” Sin Sin recalled in an interview with Al Jazeera, her now six-month old son, chubby legged, smiling and curious, secured on her hip with a blue sarong.
“I was crying, the baby was crying. It was very traumatic.”
Sin Sin is just one of a number of asylum seekers of different nationalities detained here after giving birth since the start of the year.
“It is shocking,” said Katrina Maliamauv, who works with refugee and migrant women at Tenaganita, a Malaysian NGO. “There’s already fear within many communities. This could encourage women to give birth in unsafe conditions.”
Illegal and vulnerable
Malaysian immigration law makes no distinction between undocumented migrants, asylum seekers or refugees; all are considered illegal and vulnerable to detention and deportation.
Nor is Malaysia a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees. As foreigners, most are expected to pay full fees for medical care, although those registered as refugees with the UNHCR are able to get a 50 percent discount.
Sin Sin left her village in Myanmar’s remote Chin state in 2013 to join her husband, who’d fled to Malaysia to escape a life portering for the military. The couple had asked the UN to add Sin Sin to her husband’s card and was waiting for an appointment.
“I felt great pain in my heart,” Za Tim said as he recalled the day his wife and son were taken away from him.
While in lock-up, Sin Sin had no clothing or nappies for her son. Instead, she wrapped him in a longyi – a Burmese-style sarong – she’d brought with her to the hospital for the birth. They slept together on the concrete floor of the cell they shared with a group of Indonesian women. After four days, she was transferred to the Bukit Jalil Detention Centre on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur.
Although it is considered one of the country’s more modern immigration detention facilities, Sin Sin said conditions were poor. Detainees were expected to buy food and, with no money of her own, Sin Sin relied on the kindness of the women with whom she was sharing a cell.
Her husband, a wiry man who has a job servicing air conditioners, was distraught.
“I was so worried,” he said in an interview in the apartment they share with two other families in the city centre. “I couldn’t think. I couldn’t eat or sleep.”
In the end, he sought the help of people in his community, who then contacted the UN. It took another month-and-a-half before his family was finally released.
Community groups and NGOs representing people from Myanmar, the Middle East and Sri Lanka said they are aware of a number of cases of women without formal documentation detained after giving birth at the general hospital with some spending more than three months in detention.
The issue is expected to be on the agenda of Dainius Puras, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health, during his visit to Malaysia, which concludes in early December.
The General Hospital’s maternity wing is a busy but efficiently run operation that encourages breast-feeding among new mothers and bans baby bottles on the wards.
Yet, Sin Sin and others that Al Jazeera spoke to say the poor diet in detention prevented them from breast-feeding. Sin Sin said she had no choice, but to give her son water for the first month of his life because there was no formula milk either. Other mothers say basic necessities such as nappies were rationed.
Malaysia’s Deputy Home Minister Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar admitted the detention of such vulnerable women and children contravenes the Convention on the Rights of the Child, of which Malaysia is a signatory. He said the government would like to see such cases out of detention as soon as possible.
We would like to do our best, but because of constraints of space, time and things like that, it is not as fast as we'd like it to be.
“We would like to do our best,” he told Al Jazeera in an interview. “But because of constraints of space, time and things like that, it is not as fast as we’d like it to be.”
Hospital staff declined to discuss the detentions with Al Jazeera. Privately, health administrators have raised concern that non-citizens – Malaysia has an estimated two million undocumented migrants – are putting a strain on resources meant mainly for Malaysians.
“Immigration policies of arresting and detaining such vulnerable women, especially at the time of childbirth, make Malaysia and its policies appear cruel and inhumane,” Kuala Lumpur-based Health Equity Initiatives wrote in a press statement in April.
“Such healthcare practises do not reflect the regard for science and evidence that underline Ministry of Health policies in terms of maternal health.”
The statement was endorsed by eight other NGOs working on health, refugee and women’s rights.
Groups that work with migrants are advising women without refugee cards to avoid the general hospital, but the detentions have only added to the difficulty of those trying to survive in a country that barely recognises their existence.
“It makes people very scared,” said Josie Tey, a coordinator with the Archdiocesan Office for Human Development, which is overseen by the Catholic Church, and provides assistance to migrants and refugees.
“What happened to our caring heart? Where’s it gone?”