Explainer I: “Don’t Come Back, Soldiers Are Here”: Children in Malaysia’s Immigration Detention Centres

Seen as violators of Malaysia’s immigration laws, undocumented children in Malaysia are constantly at risk of arrest, indefinite detention, and life-threatening deportation. Who are the children in detention? Why are they detained? How long? What harm does it cause? How much does detention cost taxpayers?

This is part one of New Naratif’s two-part explainer on the issue of child immigration detention in Malaysia.

Trigger warning: This article includes suicide ideation and violence.

Zay* breathed an air of freedom. 

After languishing for more than a month in one of Selangor’s immigration detention centres in late-2022, the solitary teenager was finally released at the order of immigration officers.  

He could finally change the clothes he had worn for over a month, clothes that were now stained with the memory of sleepless nights on cold floors, humiliating squat punishments, and the stench of the immigration detention centre. 

But that air of freedom was short-lived, as he was soon deported back to Myanmar, where his family and village continue to be caught in the crossfire between Myanmar’s military junta and ethnic armed forces.

“Don’t come back, soldiers are here,” his single mother warned him over the phone not to return to his hometown in Myanmar after he was released from a 5-day quarantine in Yangon. Zay could not possibly reunite with his loved ones if Myanmar’s junta soldiers were still there. It was still too dangerous. 

His last encounter with the military permanently altered the course of his life. In early 2022, while riding a bike to town, the Grade 10 student was suddenly stopped by soldiers, who confiscated his national ID and falsely accused him of partaking in an ethnic armed organisation’s revolutionary activities. Luckily, he managed to escape, but this also meant that he urgently needed to leave home and find a haven elsewhere. 

Like in many parts of Myanmar, the ethnic armed organisation in Zay’s village continues to battle the Myanmar junta for control over territory, ideas, and resources. These wars intensified and evolved after the 2021 coup. What has not evolved, however, are the many families and children like Zay who remain trapped in the conflict. 

Stuck between the wrath of war and the harrowing threat of immigration detention, Zay was compelled to make the perilous journey back alone to Malaysia. Shrouded in fear, he now lays low to avoid being hauled back to immigration detention for not holding migration papers. 

While the Malaysian government’s detention policies do little to deter migration or refugee movement, these policies are closely intertwined with the domestic movement, safety, and livelihoods of sojourning children and refugees like Zay. Drawing on primary and secondary sources, this explainer spotlights the basics of Malaysia’s child detention practices. We start by looking at the who, why, and how long of children in immigration detention. This is followed by an exploration of the human harm and the fiscal costs of child detention.  

So, let’s start. Who are the children that are locked up? Why? How long?  

Children in Malaysia’s Immigration Detention Centres: Who, Why, and How Long? 

Based on April 2023 figures from the Home Ministry, a total of 1,030 children—43% of them being girls—are currently held across the 19 immigration detention centres in Malaysia. Two-thirds of them are unaccompanied and separated children.

According to the UNHCR, “unaccompanied children” are minors who are unaccompanied by their primary and secondary caregivers: parents, designated caregivers, and relatives. “Separated children”, on the other hand, are separated from their parents and designated caregivers, but they may be in the accompanied care of a relative or other adult family members.  

Based on official figures collected from the last eleven years in the table below, a conservative average of 1,300 minors are detained annually. Put differently, at least 15,000 children were locked up in Malaysia’s immigration detention centres from 2013 to 2023 for unspecified durations. They include anyone below the age of 18: teenagers, preteens, and even babies.

These official figures, however, are likely to be undercounted as some detention centres consider those below 18 a child, while others consider only those below 12 a child. This is further complicated when age is often assessed by appearance and physical stature. Disaggregated data on the child’s age, migratory condition, length of detention, and detention location are also left wanting. 

But what offence have these minors committed? Under Malaysia’s immigration law, anyone can be detained without a warrant on suspicion of entering or remaining in Malaysia unlawfully. 

In the black-and-white eyes of the law, if you enter or remain in Malaysia without authorisation, you are first of all classified as Pendatang Asing Tanpa Izin (PATI), no matter if you are a minor or an adult, a refugee like Zay, a victim of torture, or a person with disabilities or serious illness. The term means unauthorised foreigner, which has evolved into a derogatory and disparaging term over the years that comes with far-reaching implications of detention, court charges, or deportation. 

The exception is if you can prove you are a victim of trafficking upon arrival, in which case you will be then given a protection order and sent to Malaysia’s trafficked victim shelters. However, this itself is no easy task as Malaysia’s victim screening mechanisms are inconsistent in implementation and effectiveness. 

When in immigration detention, there is no maximum time limit that one can be detained. One’s detention time is dependent in part on the discretion of officers and the Ministry’s deportation negotiations with one’s country of origin.

This ambiguous practice also means that stateless children and adults with no country to return to, such as the Rohingya, are often left languishing for months or even years in detention centres. 

The broad powers granted by law to immigration authorities mean that Zay’s refugee story of languishing, risk-taking, and sanctuary-seeking is only one of the many migratory realities of children in Malaysia’s detention centres. 

At first impression, Zay is a refugee because he is someone forced to flee to a different country due to a well-founded fear of being persecuted, in this case by Myanmar’s military, for his ethnicity or social group. Facing an existential threat due to his identity, he cannot seek the protection of this government or go home. 

At the time of writing, he is still eagerly waiting for refugee recognition by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), but that may make little or no difference because Malaysia’s immigration law and law enforcers do not recognise refugees nor protect them from detention. The intergovernmental organisation has also been denied access to detention centres since 2019.  

In other words, refugee children like Zay, who could be fleeing from conflict-stricken parts of countries like Myanmar, Pakistan, Somalia, Afghanistan, Syria, or Yemen, live under constant risk of becoming shackled and sent to detention centres. More than 25% of the 180,000 UNHCR-recognised refugees and asylum-seekers in Malaysia are children below the age of 18. 

“I was terrified,” Zay recalled the moment he was arrested during a raid at his workplace. As an unaccompanied minor, he had no choice but to work under the table to meet his basic needs. Despite showing an officer a document with his age on it, he was still placed on a truck and sent away to detention.  

He was taken to an immigration detention centre for 11 days and later transferred to another centre for more than a month. Although he was a teenager, he was forced to sleep in a 70 x 25 ft hall with 50 – 70 men and boys who were strangers to him.

In Malaysia’s detention centres, there are no separate facilities for children or families. Those below the age of 12 are generally placed with either parent—usually their mother. But once the male child turns 13, they will be placed with adult men. If unaccompanied, like Zay, they will be detained according to gender with adult strangers. 

“I can sleep on a wooden bed, but insects will bite your flesh and suck your blood,” the unaccompanied teenager explained his sleeping difficulties. “I could sleep on the floor, but that was very cold.” 

Besides refugees, there are also stateless children, children of migrant workers, and possibly, unidentified trafficked children in Malaysia’s detention centres. 

Stateless children are children born in Malaysia or elsewhere who do not possess nationality or citizenship from any country. The Rohingya fall into this group as they face the double peril of citizenship denial as well as religious and ethnic persecution at the hands of the Myanmar state. Facing citizenship struggles, some Syrians and Palestinians could also be stateless refugees. 

Similarly, Malaysia-born stateless children have also reportedly found themselves taken away to detention. As New Naratif previously reported in Documenting the Undocumented, local-born families, particularly those in Sabah, have been susceptible to detention as they are unable to gain citizenship due to a confluence of legal, administrative, or discriminatory factors. 

Last year, in a notable incident, immigration authorities detained the stateless children of two Malaysian permanent residents from Indonesia: their adult daughter and her three children. Placed in Bukit Jalil’s detention centre and scheduled to be deported to Indonesia, the four detainees successfully fought for their release by taking their case to a High Court judge, who declared the detention and deportation orders unlawful in part because immigration authorities had failed to prove that the detainees were not Malaysians. By law, children of permanent residents should qualify for Malaysian citizenship, but all four detainees were rendered stateless because of an administrative error in the mother’s birth certificate—her parents’ name did not correspond with their real names due to the mistake of an agent they sought help from as they were unfamiliar with the registration process.

Likewise, detention is also used to hold children of labourers who entered the country irregularly or whose temporary work visas have expired—often through no fault of their own but because of bureaucratic, financial, or employer-employee issues. These could be the children of migrant workers who labour in homes for the growth of Malaysian children; in mamak stalls or kopitiams nourishing bellies; in the vast plantations in Sabah; in construction sites powering Malaysia’s development trajectory; or in factories making face masks or medical gloves to protect people from diseases. At any given time, detention may also be holding unidentified labour- or sex- trafficked children or gender-based violence survivors who have yet to receive a protection order from the government. This is because law enforcers do not proactively or quickly identify trafficked survivors or screen one’s vulnerability during raids and arrests, and instead depend on victims to “self-identify”: a process that is difficult, if not impossible, to expect a minor to do if they are facing unspeakable trauma, possess little knowledge of Malaysia’s law and customs, or cannot speak Malay or English.

While the migratory realities of detained children contrast and overlap, no matter whether they are refugees, migrants, stateless children, or trafficked survivors, we must not lose sight that they are, first and foremost, all children who should be in the safety of homes, schools, and playgrounds—not in detention.

The Triple Harm of Child Detention

Officially known as “depots”, which translates into warehouse or gudang for goods, immigration detention brings about immense harm to children as well as their families and communities. 

Physical Harm:
Deaths and Negligence 

Artwork by Xiao Ming Tang

Eagerly waiting to be reunited with her younger brothers, Lili*, a Burmese refugee in her twenties, shared with me about the ordeals her imprisoned teenage brothers are currently going through in detention. Escaping forced army conscription in hopes of furthering their high school studies, the two brothers fled Myanmar, only to be arrested near the Thai-Malaysia border.   

“They weren’t provided enough meals, and they looked very skinny,” the hairdresser and sole breadwinner of the family observed when she visited her brothers in detention. While her brothers shared little during the short 15-minute visit out of fear of making their sister worry, the mere sight of their frail and thin bodies brought Lili to tears. 

“When they brought them to court, they were handcuffed on the way,” she added about how her brothers were treated like criminals. “It was tight and painful.”  

There is a lack of thorough information about the infrastructure, protocols, and conditions in Malaysia’s detention centres, but the unsanitary conditions, cramped, and brutal nature of these centres are well-documented by human rights observatories, media outlets, and whistle-blowers. Against such a backdrop, putting boys in the same facility as adult men also increases the risk of abuse and harm. 

Dr Hartini Zainudin, the founder of the child rights organisation Yayasan Chow Kit (YCK), recalled to me the pervasive stench and cruel sight in a depot she visited in 2014. The visit left her with ire and heartbreak and planted the early seeds for a conviction of the need to end the practice of child detention. 

“I just cried,” the advocate said while describing the facility where men and teenage boys were placed together as “cowsheds” and “a space with a mud floor”. “The stench is horrendous. I have never known that kind of stench. And I thought, this is how they lived. This is what you do to them for months.” 

“There is a gate that separates the sick from the not sick. There is no bed. So, if you want to sleep, you need to find a way to make an arrangement for them to sleep. Who stands? Who sits? Who sleeps?”  

Labelled as A-Grade, this centre was deemed by the Malaysian Government to be of the highest standard at that time. 

Deaths in detention are also increasingly common. A total of 568 people, including seven children, died in Malaysia’s detention centres between 2014 and mid-2022. 

Last year’s official death count was 153, which equals the total immigration deaths counted between 2016 and 2019. In the absence of proper care, illness is among the fatal causes in detention: septic shock, tuberculosis, severe pneumonia, heart complications, dengue, diabetes, breath congestion, organ failure, and Covid-19.

Sovereign Migrant Workers Coalition, a coalition of Indonesian NGOs, released a report called “Like in Hell” (Seperti di Neraka), stating that 149 Indonesian detainees died in five Sabah detention centres over the course of 18 months between March 2021 – June 2022. After interviewing around 100 deportees who were previously confined in these centres, the coalition concluded that there were gross atrocities, negligence, and abuse in these Sabah detention centres—action and inaction that prevented detainees from receiving life-saving medical services.

Shockingly, the NGOs also met a child who was born in the Papar Depot in Sabah but was four years old when he was eventually deported. They also found other babies who were born in detention. None of them received a birth certificate. On average, Indonesian detainees were locked up for 3 – 6 months in these Sabah centres. 

In response to the deaths, Hamzah Zainudin, the Home Minister at that time, infamously said: “If I knew someone was going to die and (therefore) should not be placed in a depot, I would be great. Sometimes people die even while walking… They don’t even have to be in a depot. So, this should not be an issue.”

Psychological Harm:
Scarring the Child’s Inner World 

Artwork by Xiao Ming Tang

Deaths, dilapidation, and destitution are present realities of detention, but we cannot forget the serious, long-lasting developmental and psychological harm that these centres inflict on the inner worlds of children.

Dr Hartini Zainudin also raised serious fear about the cruel “conditioning” these centres inflict on children: the way these centres could dramatically alter one’s behaviour and the way they relate to themselves and the world. In her 2014 visit, she saw how women and children were placed in deep rows and instructed to avoid eye contact and to keep their heads bowed down in front of their visitors. 

“So, I asked, why can’t they look up? They said they are not allowed to make eye contact with you. It is rude. That is how you condition these people. You put them in there for two years. How do you think there is no impact?” she asked out loud. 

While small improvements have been made over the years in some detention centres—for example, immigration staff from five of the twenty detention centres are currently providing classes to children on a voluntary basis—no matter how good detention conditions are or how brief detention is, when a child’s liberty is taken away these centres exacerbate existing health conditions and create new physical and psychological struggles. Think about life-long scarring: language development delay, emotional regulation difficulties, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), nightmares, and suicidal thoughts. 

Even as an adult, Angel*, a former child refugee from Myanmar, continues to relive the frightening experiences as a child detainee survivor in Malaysia. Providing her personal narrative to the End Child Detention Network (ECDN), she said:

“To this day, I still get nightmares about my experience in detention. I wake up in the middle of the night in fear, and I have trouble sleeping.”

“I live in constant fear that I will be arrested and would be forced to live through the terrible experiences in the camp again. I am always frightened whenever I see [the] police. I get flashbacks and find it hard to breathe.”


Detained when she was 17 years old, Angel was forced to strip naked and carry out 30 squats, eat food with mouse droppings as well as undercooked and bloody chicken, and endure slaps and physical punishments in the centre.

Ahmed*, a former child refugee from Syria, told the ECDN how he was on the verge of committing suicide when in detention at the age of 14 in 2014.

“If there was a knife or a rope near me, I would have used it to commit suicide,” Ahmed said. “But God was watching me and protecting me from harming myself.” 

Placing their lives, safety, and future at stake, immigration detention centres are no place for children.

Kinship Harm:
Disrupting a Child’s Outer World 

Artwork by Xiao Ming Tang

Detention not only risks shattering the inner worlds of children, but it also sends tremors into their outer and social worlds, too: their families and communities. 

In the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) and International Detention Coalition’s (IDC) newly released report on the impact of prolonged detention on the social worlds of Rohingya detainees in Malaysia, we learn that when a child is taken away to detention, communities and families are also affected. It could lead to a freezing climate of fear, a disruption of kinship ties, and a helpless environment of confusion. 

“The community essentially freezes,” the IDC researchers describe the effects on Rohingya refugee communities when immigration raids occur. “Nobody goes out, even to school or work or clinics.” 

Indiscriminately affecting both children and adults, the looming threat of detention thus impedes the daily movement of communities and puts the education, livelihoods, and health of proximate kinship in jeopardy. 

Against this chilling climate of perpetual fear, the DRC & IDC report also tells of how some Rohingya families would be compelled to sleep in the forests to protect themselves from detention. Other families would feel compelled to be constantly on the run, moving from place to place or state to state, to safeguard themselves from detention—a decision that comes at a huge price of one’s sense of stability and belonging.  

The report also records the damage detention inflicts on parent-child relationships. In one case, a Rohingya-Indonesian family was torn apart after they were arrested. Immigration authorities detained all of them but eventually withheld the Rohingya father in detention while deporting the mother and baby to Indonesia. 

“The erosion of family relationships creates a distortion of who their parents and family are,” the writers note about other effects of child separation.  

Given the indefinite, insecure, and information-scarce nature of detention practices, the IDC writers also spell out the environment of “confusion, inaccessibility, and helplessness” that detention inflicts on communities. Elderly parents shared how the detention of their children brought them “great sorrow”—even bringing about medical issues such as hypertension. Likewise, spouses spoke about how they have become consumed by the traumatising thought of their partners or children in detention, which then impairs their ability to work and sleep. 

Fiscal Costs: Should We Be Paying for a Child’s Incarceration?

Detention not only comes with human harm—the lives, safety, and future of children and their social worlds—it also comes with a fiscal cost for taxpayers. 

While the government leaves us wanting of standardised, disaggregated, and comprehensive data about detention, it is possible to come up with rough cost estimates of child detention based on scattered information released through parliamentary debates and journalistic articles in the last few years. 

In 2018, the then Immigration Deputy Director assessed the price of rent, utilities, and meals to be around RM 80 (USD 17) per detainee per day. In 2019, the then Home Minister revealed the daily figure to be RM 30 (USD 6), although it is uncertain what this cost covers and if it includes indirect overhead costs. In 2020, the then-Deputy Home Minister estimated that it cost RM 90 (USD 20) to house and feed an immigration detainee per day. All of this suggests that we can estimate detention costs to be RM 30 – RM 90 per person per day. 

Assuming Malaysia houses an average of 1,300 child detainees all year long, this cost range means that child detention costs taxpayers approximately RM 1.2 – RM 3.5 million per month (USD 260,000 – USD 765,000) or RM 14 – RM 42 million per year (USD 3 – USD 9 million). This excludes operational costs needed to carry out immigration operations on children and their families. To put things into perspective, RM 42 million is approximately equivalent to the total median cost of 140 private houses in Malaysia or 1,200 low-cost public houses in Peninsular Malaysia.

This calculation makes two assumptions: (a) Individual detention costs would be the same for both children and adults. (b) Given how official child detention numbers have fluctuated between 500 – 1,700 over the last eleven years, I am using the average number of children detained per year (1,300) to predict possible daily, monthly, and yearly costs.

Towards Ending Child Detention:
Alternatives to Detention  

These fiscal costs must also be understood against the growing body of research that detention makes no financial sense, especially when there is a range of alternative measures society and governments can take to govern migration in kinder, effective, and cost-efficient ways that do not resort to arrest or detention.

Termed as Alternatives to Detention (ATD) in advocate-speak, these measures have been defined by IDC as “any law, policy, or practice by which persons are not detained for reasons relating to their migration status”. Implemented in many parts of the world, ATD schemes could take a range of tailored forms: assisted community placement schemes, guarantor schemes, residence schemes, or a combination of the above. An ATD could also be the complete and unconditional halt to child detention. ATD schemes would thus operate under the principle that immigration detention is an extreme measure of last resort for short-term periods or never used at all and is not exclusive to children or any single migratory group. 

Not only could ATD schemes be more humane—avoid inflicting further individual and communal harm onto uprooted children and families if meaningfully implemented—but studies about ATD have also shown that they are also more affordable and more effective in achieving migration governance goals. 

In 2019, Lighthouse Partnerships, a consultancy firm that specialises in migration issues, carried out an independent study to compare the potential costs of implementing an ATD in Malaysia with existing known costs of detention by evaluating a community placement and case management (CPCM) program under Suara Kanak-Kanak (SUKA), an NGO that protects the best interest of the child. Since 2015, the program has provided foster care, kinship care, or independent living arrangements for unaccompanied and separated minors. 

Using the CPCM program as an ATD proxy, the researchers found that in 2018 it only cost RM 8.83 (USD 2) per person per day to cover the utilities, rental, and food under the SUKA program, which was 90% less than what was spent—RM 80 (USD 17) per person per day—on the same items for individual detainees during the same year. 

This finding is also consistent with studies across the globe that found ATDs to be 80-90% cheaper than detention. 

There is a caveat, though. Successful ATD schemes often include a case management component whereby different actors act, think, and manage in the best interest of the child and their families: social workers, civil society actors, and community leaders, alongside specialised staff from immigration authorities. A meaningful ATD thus requires acting in concert in smart, thoughtful, and collaborative ways. 

Applied this way, ATD schemes are also more conducive for further compliance with migration requirements—for instance, if one is asked to leave the country or obtain certain documents—because they create a space for trust and clear communication to be cultivated between people who migrate, immigration authorities, and case managers. This enables knowledge transfer of a country’s societal and legal norms and for everyone’s best interests to be met. 

In a post-pandemic era when public resources are thin and waning, a question arises for taxpayers in Malaysia: Would one rather invest money and resources in a practice that afflicts harm and trauma onto children and their communities or in more humane and cheaper alternatives that could prevent further harm on childhoods while meeting Malaysia’s migration governance objectives?  

No matter how or why they end up in Malaysia, no sojourning child belongs in immigration detention. It not only harms their personal and communal lives but also depletes our public funds, even more so when they can be evidently channelled into ways that protect and restore childhoods instead. 

It is worthwhile ending with a note that no child willingly chooses to be in an undocumented situation in violation of another country’s migration laws unless there are bigger forces compelling them to enter, remain, or live irregularly.

These forces could be the forces of capital or human trafficking in the case of children of labourers, the forces of bureaucratic ineptness or discrimination in the case of stateless children, or the forces of war in the case of refugees like Zay and Lili’s brothers.

What then have Malaysia’s government officials and civil society actors done in the last few years to change the sojourning child’s reality–to end child detention? Why has that been such a challenging thing to do? What else needs to be done to protect children regardless of their migration status? 

It is to these questions we next turn in Explainer II. 

RELATED PUBLICATION BY JOSHUA LOW

Explainer II: “The Political Decision is to Release Them”: The 12-Year Struggle to End Child Immigration Detention in Malaysia

New Naratif’s two-part explainer looks into the issue of child immigration detention in Malaysia. Building on the first article, this explainer examines the Home Affairs Minister’s announcement that he will release children from detention centres, the historical struggle to end child detention, the forces hindering change, and the steps government, civil society, and readers can…

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What can readers do?

The Home Minister’s political announcement brings cautious optimism for change, but sustained and protection-oriented change for all children, regardless of migration status, will hinge on whether concerned readers, civil society, and government officials can address the democratic deficit and meaningfully keep the issue on the train of socio-political reform. Change in Thailand happened because local, regional, and global civil society acted in concert to place sustained, democratic, and strategic pressure on the Thai government. Concretely, readers can take knowledge-building, movement-building, and solidarity-building steps:  

Knowledge-Building:
Build collective consciousness

  • Build your knowledge widely and deeply. We have included a learning map below that you can use to deepen your knowledge about child detention and protection issues as well as learn and unlearn biases and misconceptions. 
  • Ask tough questions about past, present, and future policy and programmatic actions of the government towards all children, regardless of migration status. 
  • Create spaces to learn and dialogue about these issues in schools, universities, workspaces, and places of faith. 
  • Create reading group sessions using our child detention articles and other related resources as seeds for dialogue, debate, and democratic engagement. 
  • Take the End Child Detention course put together by International Detention Coalition.


Movement-Building:
Keep the issue on the political agenda 

  • Disseminate both child detention articles widely via social media, including WhatsApp groups. 
  • Amplify child detention harms via social media, including WhatsApp groups. 
  • Create art, music, writings, reels, or films to express your thoughts about the issue of child detention. 
  • Share your ideas on what status-blind but reality-centric child protection measures you think your government needs to take. You can send your ideas to the Home Minister Saifuddin Nasution through Instagram or email [email protected] and the Minister of Women, Family, and Community Development Nancy Shukri through Instagram or email [email protected] 
  • Put pressure on your elected representatives on state and federal levels and ask them what they are doing to protect children regardless of migration status. New Naratif’s comic Who You Gonna Call? MPs, ADUNs, and Local Councillors in Malaysia could be useful guides here. 
  • If you’re a media worker, be diligent and responsible in how you report immigration raids or detention. Ask sharp questions towards authorities: Who exactly are the people being detained? Where are they taken to? For how long? Why are they arrested? What led them to become undocumented, if they are? Instead of reducing everyone under the term of Pendatang Asing Tanpa Izin (PATI), emphasise or highlight levels of vulnerability as well as the diverse migratory, gender, and age realities of those arrested. 

Solidarity-Building:
Support the ongoing work of civil society organisations

  • Put out value-based narratives and big-tent narratives that can galvanise support from different segments of society around migration issues. Read the seven key elements to build human rights-based narratives about migrants and migration. 
  • If you have financial or cognitive resources, channel them to refugee-run or migrant-run organisations. Check out the “Get Involved” section on the websites of the two child rights organisations mentioned: Suka Society and Yayasan Chow Kit
  • If you are leading any organisation that could help in the efforts to end immigration detention, you may want to consider applying to become a network member of the International Detention Coalition.
Learning Map

If you’re someone who knows little about child detention or human displacement issues, I recommend first reading about the lived experiences of child detainees. You can begin by reading the lived experiences and narratives of Ahmed and Angel, former child detainees in Malaysia. Complementing this would be the International Detention Coalition (IDC) and Danish Refugee Council’s report on the impacts of immigration detention from the perspective of Rohingya leaders (Section 7, p.13 – 21). 

Chapters 2 and 4 of IDC’s 2012 Captured Childhood report, which talks about why children migrate and the conditions of detention, respectively, provides lived testimonies of children on the move in Malaysia. If you want to look into lived experiences in Sabah, read Seperti di Neraka (“Like in Hell”): Kondisi Pusat Tahanan Imigrasi di Sabah, Malaysia and Aime Marisa’s New Naratif article Documenting the Undocumented: The Struggle for a Legal Identity

After grappling with some of these lived realities, you can take a look at this short summary article by Karen Zwi on the life-long physical and mental harm of child detention. Scholarly articles on the same topic can be found here, here, and here

For the solution-oriented, you may want to look at IDC’s 2015 handbook on alternatives to detention (ATD) for preventing unnecessary immigration detention. This handbook can be concurrently read with this IDC Annex document on the ATD steps taken by Malaysia (p.29-34) and other countries in the Asia Pacific region. When thinking about solutions, it is also useful to engage in the question of whether arrest and detention as a deterrence policy really achieve its purported security goals of curbing undocumented migration. IDC’s 2015 Does Detention Deter?  article kickstarts that conversation. 

For the law-minded, you may delve into Malaysia’s domestic and international commitments to protect children regardless of migration status. Domestically, it would be Malaysia’s Child Act 2001 (Preamble, Section 17, Section 55, and Section 84). A news summary of a High Court judgement on the government’s Child Act obligations to protect children regardless of migration status can be found here. Internationally, read these documents that the Malaysian government has signed onto: ASEAN Human Rights Declaration 2012 (Article 12 and Article 16), the Child Rights Convention (Article 22), and the Declaration on the Rights of Children in the Context of Migration (Article 9) and its Regional Plan of Action

Of course, you can also broaden your understanding of these issues by looking at the impact of undocumentation, statelessness, and refugeehood on basic access to rights, services, and safety. University of Malaya professor Tharani Loganathan and a team of researchers wrote a scholarly article about the different ways the lack of documentation affects the educational lives of children. Melati Nungsari and Nicole Fong’s SUHAKAM report on statelessness also sheds light on the ways Malaysia is producing homegrown (in-situ) and migratory statelessness in Peninsular Malaysia and their various human consequences. Finally, do check out the Dari Dapur migration and food short film series. These are great visual stories that illustrate the enriching lives of migrants and refugees in Malaysia.

Author Notes

Aware of the potential repercussions of speaking, Zay*, the protagonist of the first Explainer, was visibly afraid of speaking about his experiences when we first met. After I explained my project, he agreed to speak to me so long as the conversation was not recorded. We also worked together to determine which revealing details had to be omitted for his security. I also carried out a close reading of the first article’s draft with him so that he could check if his story was well and accurately represented. After the representation check, he told me that he was grateful that the public could now learn more about these issues. 

Besides Zay, I also interviewed a family member of child detainees, Lili*, Dr Hartini Zainudin from Yayasan Chow Kit, and three other civil society organisation representatives who have been working on the issue of child detention but did not want to be named for security reasons. Other sources of information came from existing scholarly, civil society, and media articles hyperlinked throughout both explainers. 

Editorial inclusions and omissions were also made to balance two, sometimes incompatible principles: (a) the consequential need for stealth humanitarianism in a precarious political context, where sometimes more media or public attention can negatively affect the rights and lives of displaced communities if not done tactfully, with (b) the democratic need to craft open spaces for the public to meaningfully learn, grapple with, and act on complex issues of our time. I am also grateful to International Detention Coalition, particularly Hannah Jambunathan, for providing support and resources.

This article is produced in cooperation with the Heinrich Böll-Stiftung e.V.

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