The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) has said it is “shocked and deeply saddened” by the deaths of six Rohingya, including two children, who died on Wednesday in an escape this week from a temporary immigration detention centre in northern Malaysia.
The group was among 528 Rohingya people who fled the facility in the early hours of Wednesday morning after what authorities said was a riot.
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The UNHCR, which has an office in Kuala Lumpur, said in a statement late on Thursday, that it was also concerned about the incident that led to the escape.
Tens of thousands of Rohingya, a mostly Muslim minority who have long been persecuted in Myanmar, have sought safety in Malaysia with many risking dangerous boat journeys to get to the country following a brutal military crackdown in 2017 that is now the subject of an international genocide case.
The UN refugee agency said it did not have any information regarding the incident or the individuals involved, and revealed that it had not been allowed to access any immigration detention centres in Malaysia since August 2019.
“This has unfortunately prevented UNHCR in seeing detained persons of concern in order to determine those in need of international protection and to advocate for their release,” the statement said, noting that there are “detained persons of concern, including vulnerable individuals, requiring our attention” in immigration detention centres across Malaysia.
It said it was ready to work with the Malaysian government on alternatives to detention, especially for children and the elderly.
“Depriving individuals of their liberty in order to deter others from entering the country is unlawful, inhumane and ineffective,” the statement said. “Seeking asylum is not an unlawful act. In all cases detention should be a measure of last resort, should be authorized by the law and only undertaken if necessary and reasonable in all the circumstances, and proportionate to a legitimate aim.”
The six people who died were killed as they tried to cross the North-South Highway, the main road that links northern Malaysia to Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.
The immigration department said most of the group was rearrested hours after they escaped, but police continue to search for nearly 100 people who remain free.
Some 664 people were in the centre at the time of the disturbances, 137 of them children, Malaysia’s home minister Hamzah Zainudin told local media on Wednesday. The Rohingya had arrived by sea in 2020 and had been transferred from the resort island of Langkawi, he added.
“Because there were so many detainees in a cramped space, things got out of control and the detainees took the opportunity to break out,” Hamzah said.
Some 181,000 people in Malaysia are officially registered as refugees and asylum seekers, according to the UN, and about 57 percent of them are Rohingya. Like many countries in the region, Malaysia does not recognise the UN Refugee Convention and those caught without papers are considered “illegal” migrants.
“Even before the incident, many of these refugees would have already been undergoing huge trauma, having escaped a genocide against them in Myanmar,” Tun Khin, president of the Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK, said in a statement. “Malaysian authorities must not only treat them with compassion but also get to the bottom of what triggered the incident.”