Khairil and Hasril were 9 and 5 years old when they were caught with their father while being on a truck transporting palm fruits to cross the border from Sabah, Malaysia to Nunukan, Indonesia. Khairil and Hasril must languish at the Tawau Immigration Detention Center (DTI Tawau) in its adult block for 8 months. In September 2021, they both witnessed their father die in the immigration detention center. Since then, until being deported one month later, both of them had to live in the adult prison block without their parents.
Khairil and Hasril were born to parents who are both undocumented migrant workers. Both of them were born at a palm oil plantation in Sabah, Malaysia. Their births were never documented with any institution. They never went to school, and they cannot read and count. While in detention, Khairil and Hasril, with his father, languished in an adult block which is only about 8 x 12 meters, along with more than 200 other prisoners. For 8 months without sunlight, no off-block activity, no educational activity, no toys, they both had to live in an overcrowded, dirty, prison block, also damp and smelly. They have to sleep on the rough floor without a mattress and blanket. With bad food conditions bad, and not enough water to drink.
Even after their father died, both of them were never transferred from immigration detention center to other facilities. They continued to survive in DTI Tawau until they were finally deported one month later. The death of Khairil and Hasril’s father in September 2021 was among the deaths occurring in the period between July and November 2021 (or only 5 months), in which there were deaths of 14 Indonesian migrant workers in DTI Tawau.
Better Engagement Between East and Southeast Asia (BEBESEA) believes that migration is not a crime. Irregular entry and stay by migrants should not be treated as a criminal offense, because the mere fact of crossing a border or staying in a country irregularly is not a crime per se against persons, property or national security and should not be treated as such (A/HRC/20/24, para. 13; WGAD, Deliberation No. 5). We are seriously concerned about the deaths of migrant workers, including those from Indonesia and the Philippines in DTIs in Sabah as monitored by the Coalition of Sovereign Migrant Workers (Koalisi Buruh Migran Berdaulat or KBMB). States have to prioritize and work for the alternative to detention while individuals’ imigration status is reviewed and disputes are resolved.
BEBESEA believes these deaths in immigration detention could be prevented. It is a manifestation of the lack of seriousness of state officials in ensuring the right to life and the right to health of everyone that are stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The UDHR clearly states that everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person (Article 3) as well as right to health (Article 25); no one should be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile (Article 9).
Not only preventable deaths, there are also a lot of human rights violations happening in immigration detention. In the written report submitted to KBMB on 24 June 2022, the Malaysian Embassy stated the number of Indonesian citizens who died in all immigration detention centers in Sabah were as many as 101 in 2021 and 48 in 2022 (January – June) ; or as many as 149 within 1.5 years, which was then revised down to only 25 deaths without clear explanation.
We were informed by researchers from KBMB that they also found the same conditions experienced by Filipino migrant workers during their monitoring; Deaths that should have been preventable as well as various human rights violations were experienced by Filipino migrant workers. This condition is exacerbated by the political instability between Malaysia and the Philippines over Sabah.
KBMB suspects that the authorities of the immigration detention center in Sabah are neglecting sick detainees and not providing timely medical services so as preventing detainees’ illnesses from developing into serious and fatal consequences; Not referring sick detainees to a health care center before their illness have developed into a more serious one; Not providing personnel, health facilities and medicines needed in DTI.
The high mortality rate in the DTIs experienced by Indonesian migrant workers and their families have clearly shown that all relevant authorities in Sabah are deliberately not meeting the health standards that should be applied in every DTIs.
Therefore, BEBESEA urges ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), national Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs), Malaysian and Indonesian governments as well as the government of the Philippines to conduct joint investigations into human rights violations that have occurred in all immigration detention centers, especially in Sabah. We call for all states to prioritize and work towards alternatives to detention as a more humane and rights-based approach to management of irregular migrants.