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The Struggle to End Child Immigration Detention in Malaysia

In this episode, we will talk about children in Malaysia’s immigration detention centres, what the deal is with the holdup in the Malaysian government, and what researchers and non-researchers can do to help advocacy moving forward.


Welcome to New Naratif’s Southeast Asia Dispatches. I’m your host, Bonnibel Rambatan, Editorial Manager for New Naratif. New Naratif is a movement to democratise democracy in Southeast Asia, and this podcast is one of the ways we attempt to do just that.

Based on April 2023 figures from the Home Ministry,  a total of 1,030 children, 43% of whom are girls, are currently being held in 19 immigration detention centres across Malaysia. Two-thirds of these are unaccompanied and separated children. There are also youngsters who are stateless, offspring of migrant workers, and potentially unidentified children who have been smuggled into Malaysian prison centres. 

Detention centres are horrible, horrible places, but we’re not gonna get into the details of its horrors here. Plenty has been written about that, including by our guests today. Over one thousand children are still in detention. Can you imagine?

The thing is, releasing them has always been, sadly, no more than political discoursing, especially here in Malaysia. We’ve been at this for twelve years. The latest, at the time of recording, was Home Affairs Minister Saifuddin Nasution declaring on February 15, 2023, that he would transfer children from immigration detention centres to non-governmental welfare organisations.

This isn’t the first time a Malaysian minister has indicated the necessity to release children from immigration detention centres. So, naturally, questions remain.

There are alternatives to detention that ensures proper administration of migration in kinder, more successful, and less expensive ways that do not include arrest or imprisonment. We call this Alternatives to Detention, or ATD. But if that’s so promising, why hasn’t there been any concrete action?


Hi, everyone,  it’s great to be here again. I am New Naratif’s force migration researcher, and I recently wrote two articles on child detention. One of them explains the basics of children in immigration detention centres. And the second article is about the struggle to end immigration detention.

That is Joshua Low, whom regular listeners might be familiar with. He’s a returning guest on this podcast, currently working as a Forced Migration Researcher in New Naratif.

Hi, everyone. I’m Hannah Jambunathan. I’m the Asia Pacific program officer with the International Detention Coalition. And as part of my job, I work very closely with civil society governments and other allies towards ending immigration detention and advocating for alternatives to detention ATD. And as part of my work, I’ve become quite the expert on child immigration detention as well.

That is Hannah Jambunathan, Asia Pacific Programme Officer in the International Detention Coalition. Prior to IDC, she worked in the areas of gender equality, capacity building, community mobilisation, advocacy, research, and youth empowerment.

In this episode, we will talk about children in Malaysia’s immigration detention centres, what the deal is with the holdup in the Malaysian government, and what researchers and non-researchers can do to help advocacy moving forward.


Children Detention Centres

Joshua, can you tell us about your research, especially children in immigration? Right. Who are they and why are they detained, and usually for how long? Can you talk us through a bit about the context here.

Yeah, happy to do that. So my two explainer, really centre around children. And the first explainer talks about the who, why, how long and where children are detained in Malaysia’s immigration detention centres.

So generally, when you talk about children detention centres, it’s really important to know that it’s not a monolith. There are many different kinds of children with different realities, overlapping migratory realities and contrasting realities.

So you have refugee children, you have children of labour migrants, stateless children, and potentially also traffic survivors. And the last part is quite key because that has to do a lot with the poor traffic victim identification system that we have in Malaysia whereby children have to proactively identify themselves as traffic survivors before they are actually given protection. 

And on average, you could say there are about 1300 children detained at different times in the last ten years. We’ve seen that number clapped for it, but it usually revolves around three. And the other thing to note is that they can be detained indefinitely.

So there is actually no fixed time that they can be detained. There are those who are detained for months. There are those who are detained for years. There is no fixed duration. And finally, you asked the question about why.

So children are detained because they are seen, without exception, as in violation of Malaysia’s Immigration Act of 1959 61. And the problem with the act is that it does not distinguish between whether you’re a refugee or whatever your migratory status is, whether you’re young, whether you’re old, whether you’re sick.

As long as you’ve arrived in Malaysia or you’ve stayed in Malaysia irregularly, you could be detained. Now, all of that being said, there are also those children who are detained arbitrarily because they were in places where there were rapes and arbitrary not necessary because they do not have status. There is a lot that we do not know that happens in detention centres. It’s quite OPEC just hearing about this.

The Harms of Detention Centres

Just hearing about the concept of children in detention centres. It already brings to mind a lot of harmful images and pretty scary images. But, Hannah, you produced a research report and you work a lot with this issue as well. You produced a research report titled Impact of Prolonged Immigration Detention on Rohingya Families and Communities in Malaysia which explored the varying ways in which the immigration detention can directly and indirectly harm the children. Could you tell us more about what these harms look like and how they manifest what they are, essentially?

Thanks, Bonnie, for that question and thanks, Josh, for your answer earlier. I also just wanted to build on something that you said, and I think it’s just important to highlight that I think a lot of people sometimes get confused because, of course, it is a form of detention. But I think it’s important to highlight that immigration detention in Malaysia and in most places in the world is an administrative tool, which means that the people that are detained, the children that are detained, have not committed any crimes.

Immigration detention is just used as a tool of migration management to hold people as they await deportation or repatriation. And I think that’s important for people to understand. I don’t think that, as you said, because of the Malaysian immigration law and people being seen as contrary to that, it can be interpreted that they’re criminals, but they’re not. They actually haven’t committed any crime.

They simply exist, unfortunately, without documents due to their different contexts and backgrounds. And now, Bonnie, to get back to your question, thanks for that. And I think, yes, the research that we wrote did explore the different ways that immigration detention has an impact not just on children, but on families and communities.

The specific community that the research report focused on was Rohania, but a lot of the findings we found were generalisable to larger refugee populations as well. To start getting into it.

Clinical studies and research it’s always a good way to open a statement is to say clinical studies and research from all corners of the world actually have reiterated over and over again that immigration detention has a really serious impact on a child from their physical health to their mental health and well being and also with their familial relationships. So conditions in detention are known to be generally inhumane and quite traumatising.

In Malaysia, multiple reports, especially from Suhakam, our National Human Rights Commission, have shown that immigration detention conditions in Malaysia have poor hygiene standards, inadequate nutrition, inadequate sanitation facilities, no access to pay or education, and are often severely overcrowded.

So in these conditions, children are exposed to a myriad of health issues, such as skin diseases, respiratory tract infections, TB, gastrointestinal issues, and malaria. And our research report didn’t add anything new, but it definitely affirmed and reiterated these findings as well, with several of our key informants coming forth to talk about the trauma that children face when being in detention, especially when they are separated from their parents and how.

The lack of access to facilities, the lack of access to care and stimulation further puts children at risk of developmental regression. I think the report also severely highlights the severe impact that children face from a psychological perspective to the turmoil that they face as children in detention.

They have no understanding of why they are there, why they’re being treated so badly, why they’re not allowed to be free. Some of our key informants correctly highlighted that detention facilities treat children like criminals, and of course they are not.

And the trauma from being in detention is unbearable and continues to impact long after the period of detention is over. And that can be whether the period of detention is a few days, a few weeks, months or years.

These are the findings that our research report reaffirmed, and that has been confirmed multiple times by Global studies. I would also like to talk a little bit about the indirect impacts of immigration detention that children experience, which are significantly less researched. And these are some of the more unique findings that they reported.

So this is what happens to children, the impacts that children face when their parents or guardians are detained or wider family or community members, how do they experience that? How does that affect them? So the several points I’d like to highlight is that can cause severe harm to family structures and family structures and relationships.

So what happens here is when a parent is detained, this can cause quite harmful damage to how they relate to their child, the development of their relationships and bonding with their children. And equally, detention, immigration detention, can separate families, not just through detention, but also the process of deportation or repatriation.

And this also, of course, very literally separates a family, separates parents and children. And all this can cause a severe distortion of who a child’s parents are, who their family is, which understandably has an impact on their well being and their stability.

And coming to the end of my spiel now, another really important point that I want to highlight that this research put forth was showing how there’s a severe knockdown effect or a domino effect of detention of breadwinners.

So what can happen? The impact that children can face when their family breadwinner is detained again is just several different harms. One clear one is that when the breadwinner is detained, they have to drop out of informal education because they don’t have access to any formal education in Malaysia. So they do have to drop out of informal education. Some of them have to begin working, which is of course not great and not right for children to be doing that.

And I would like to highlight that young girls especially face a higher risk of gender based violence because they face increased vulnerabilities. They face a higher risk of exploitation, forced marriage and prostitution when there’s no source of income for the family to be able to sustain themselves. 

And further, when others are detained, not even necessarily family members, but even community members, especially for a close knit community that relies on each other quite a lot, this can increase the general sense of lack of safety and increases their own fear and risk of detention.

And what happens is that they close in to protect themselves. The children aren’t able to go out again, not able to access schools, not able to access health clinics. And some of them even have to move out of their homes, move out of their communities, they sleep in forests to avoid getting detained. Sometimes they move cities. And all of this is extremely destabilising. You’re uprooting yourself, you’re losing your contacts.

There’s no way that immigration detention is not harmful to children, whether directly or indirectly.

And I’ll end by saying immigration detention is proven. It’s a fact that it has inherent, detrimental and long lasting impacts on child’s development, physical and mental health well being.

Yeah. Thank you, Hannah. It paints a very morbid or at least very scary picture of the children detention there, which, Joshua, you also echoed in your articles there, which also you also brought up the point, Joshua, that remember that we are funding these abuses of children to our taxpayer money as well which is known. It also creates this very strange condition in which the government is making us pay for these children to be abused. Do you have any points that you might like to add on these harms in this situation, Joshua?

Yeah, so my explainers also do draw on IDC’s report, IDC and the Danish Refugee Council’s report, which Hannah was involved in. And what really struck me was how the researchers, Hannah and others, wrote that the community essentially breathes when a community member is detained, that nobody goes out, even to schools, to work or to clinics, to just draw out some stats in terms of the physical harm.

Between 2014 to 2022, over 568 people died doing seven children in detention centres. And, yeah, you have to really think about the lifelong scarring, the language development delay, emotional regulation, difficulties, and PTSD that the children and their families face. So I just really wanted to put it out there.

It is very important to remember that any form of detention, no matter how good the conditions are in the detention centre, is a bad thing because you’re depriving the child from normalcy and security and play, but most importantly is liberty.

At the same time, yeah, Bonnie, I think you mentioned a very important point about cost, that detention centres do cost. And in my explainer, I actually do talk about the cost of detaining. Let’s say we’re detaining 1300 children. What’s the cost per day, per month, and per year, you’re looking at up to 42 million ringgit. If you were to use the 90 ringgit per person cost, which was released by Parliament. But, yeah, you can read the extenders the range of cost.

And that brings us to the next point, is that what are the alternatives? And there are alternatives that are cheaper, and studies show that alternatives to detection are 80% to 90% cheaper. It’s safer, more humane. But maybe we will talk about that a little bit more later on.

Alternatives to Detention (ATD)

Yeah, no, that’s a great point that I do want to segue into, especially because, Hannah, you mentioned that detention centres are an administrative tool, although they often function as punitive and incarcerative practices, right? So there must be alternatives to these things, especially if, Joshua, you also mentioned it’s more cost effective. Even so, even looking at a very cold hearted economist lens, it should make more sense. But yeah. Hannah, I’ll let you speak about the alternatives to detention.

Thanks Bonni. And thanks, Josh, for providing that good segue. Alternatives to Detention, also known as ATD, which is a bit easier to say, can sometimes be tough to understand and explain because it doesn’t really have a strict definition.

I think the best way to understand it is that APD is more humane, effective, and as Josh was saying, affordable measures or practices to govern migration without relying on immigration detention as a tool. That’s the best way to explain it.

What ATD can look like, hoping that these different examples can give people a more concrete understanding of how ATD can actually be put into practice. So ATD can look like laws, policies and practices that are rights based and that are geared towards not detaining people for immigration related reasons.

ATD can also look like formal or informal initiatives that are human rights focused. It can be community placement, ATD can be holistic case management, and ATD can also look like the screening and assessments of migrants and refugees.

So, for example, what you’re seeing here is that there are just different ways to develop and implement ATD that are focusing on looking after the rights of fellow human beings and not punishing them due to their immigration status. I would also like to highlight a helpful way to also understand ATD is to understand what ATD is not. And ATD is not closed or restricted shelters.

Again, and drawing on what Josh said earlier as well,

These shelters fundamentally continue to deprive someone of their liberty. And any form of deprivation of liberty is also a form of detention and is never acceptable for people and especially for children.

ATD is also not focused on isolating refugees and migrants from host communities. ATD is not monitoring and tracking people. And again, ATD and tying this back to my earlier point, ATD is also not relating to people who have been convicted of criminal charges. Is that helpful to understand ATD?

The Obstacles

Yeah, definitely. And it makes a lot of sense. Essentially, it’s called Alternatives to Detention or ATD. So it’s like alternatives to conducting the administration of migrant communities that are less harmful. Right? That’s the gist of it, right? So if there’s a lot of benefits to that, we can reduce it to the right space and we can reduce harm and also it’s more cost effective. But as of April 2023, the pilot is yet to be implemented, right? And no children are being released, as far as I understand. So why what’s the hold up there? Why are we still not moving forward in a very clear and a clear practical direction? What are the major factors that are leading to this strange situation?

Thanks, Bonni. Really quite a tough question to answer because, of course, I’m not privy to the internal workings of government too closely. Maybe how I can answer it is that I can work backwards from what I advocate for. The calls to action that I try to share with the government around ATD. Some of the reasons that I think the ATD pilot hasn’t.

So the ATD pilot was, I think, approved in 2021, launched in 2022, and implementation was supposed to be carried out from then until 2023 and beyond. I think a key reason or a key factor why the at pilot has yet to be implemented is that there have been several changes in government in Malaysia.

And what I always like to highlight to people that I speak to about this is that one government approved it, another government launched it, and another government is tasked with implementing it, which obviously doesn’t make great for any project management.

Any project implementation is going to suffer from having the project leads and the project team change constantly. So I think that is probably a key reason behind that. I think it’s public information that the pilot had quite strict criteria.

It did exclude the Rohingya community, for example, which is one of the largest refugee populations in Malaysia. And the pilot was also deportation centric, meaning the only case resolution that was able to be achieved through the pilot was deportation or repatriation of people and children. I think these are some of the criteria that when it became time to implement the pilot became barriers, rather than became barriers to implementation, as the criteria is too strict to actually be able to follow all the processes.

I think also something that I would like to highlight is generally around this deportation centric point, is that I think a change in mindset is necessary, not just within government, but with everyone, even within the public.

I think when we think about migration, we often approach it from a heavily securitised perspective. We’re thinking about our border security and our national sovereignty and security, and this is globally the way the discourse is focused. A lot of it, of course, I guess propagated by Western understandings of security and borders as well.

So I think when we think about how to govern migration, how to manage migration, it’s always about protecting our borders and it’s very nationalistic and we have to remove people that are a threat to our national security.

But the change in mindset that’s necessary there is to understand that these are people, they are not committing any crime, they’re simply trying to exist safely, they’re simply trying to have a safe, good life for themselves and their families, and there’s no need to be so punitive with the punishment.

And I think that change in mindset towards a human rights understanding that they are people and not threats is something that needs to happen, not just with the Malaysian government, but with governments across the Asia Pacific region, governments across all the regions across the world, and with the public as well.

And I think once we do that’s obviously really hard to achieve. But I think once we start understanding and researching, just to segue quickly this research, this conversation all works towards encouraging those changes with each other, with our listeners. And I think once that can happen, we can slowly shift away from being so strict about our own perspective about security and migration.

Four Forces

Yeah, it sounds like a complex issue with multiple factors, because what I’m hearing is that despite the vision and the push from various activists and researchers, there’s a lot of like two factors, right? I mean, there’s the mindset factor of looking at how the government, and maybe a lot of the general public views migrants like migrant communities. But also at the same time, there’s also bureaucratic challenges, which I think, Joshua, you’ve also explored. There are legal challenges, governance challenges, the fragmented governance that you mentioned, capacity challenge, and also something that you mentioned a democratic deficit. So can you talk more about these forces that you called them Joshua?

I spoke about four different forces that I think really relate and built on Hannah’s point around why aren’t we really moving forward with this issue? And I take a broader perspective and think really about the last twelve years.

We’ve been fighting and struggling to end child detention for over a decade right now. And yes, there have been commitments, lots of statements of intent since 2019 and then 2022, we had the ATD launch, but we’re not moving forward.

So I started to kind of think about what other factors are at play here that’s contributing to this prolonged delay. And the first thing I think is really how we see people. So really speaking to Hannah’s point is that immigration authorities, the general public, have this very potentially very dangerous and unidimensional view of people like children as seeing them as, quote unquote, illegal immigrants under the “Pendatang” label.

And what we’re not seeing, and that’s the thing that also tarps the problem there is also how journalists are so potentially reporting these issues is that whenever there’s a raid, there’s detention. Everyone is labelled blank as Pendatang without any conversation around their age, their vulnerability levels, migratory circumstances.

The question is, why are they in Malaysia? And if you bring it back to the story of my first explainer, it tells you the story of Zay, who’s a refugee child who had to leave very dangerous circumstances in Myanmar to get to safety because he was accused of being part of the rebel group. But when he came to Malaysia, he was detained, so he’s underage.

And later on he was released and then released back to Myanmar. But when he was in Myanmar, he called his mom and the mom said, it’s too dangerous, you have to leave again. And so we’re not understanding these kinds of very human dynamics that people don’t leave unless they have no choice and they’re forced to leave and compelled to leave.

And so how do we actually get the public to actually understand that beyond the black gadget labels, the dehumanising labels that we have? And yeah, I talk about fragmented government as well. I think that we can’t think of the government as this phonolit one direction body. You have to think of it as tiers and labels, layers.

It’s like this black box of amazed because you have decision makers, policymakers, a user of the civil service, and all of them have to work together in some form of way to actually implement things.

And if you’re not working together, which is worsened by the government changes, then things are not going to move. And there are different interests as well within the different levels of government. And that complicates implementation of ATDs.

Yeah, I talk about capacity as well. Sometimes it’s a very dangerous discourse that we can’t take care of our own children. How can we take care of other children? But if you look at the numbers, there are some 9 million children living in Malaysia and some 48,000 refugee children in Malaysia. So that’s only 0.5% of the population.

But you also have to think of it from a broader perspective, that if you were to take care of these children and work together, civil society, to take care of these children from governments and using our institutions, we will actually eventually build the child protection system altogether.

There’s so much like cross learning, cross termination that we can do if we were to take care of these children with very different backgrounds. It helps to professionalise social work as well in Malaysia.

Yeah. And finally, I think the point that I think is extremely important as well is also the democratic deficit, that we don’t have enough space to actually talk about these issues openly and these sensitive issues.

And that’s in part because of our laws. There are many laws that criminalise journalists reporting on these issues. And there have been incidents where activists have also been caught up because they voiced out against detention centres.

There’s a lack of transparency and access to these detention centres. So we don’t have very consistent information, disaggregated information. So it’s very hard to talk about an issue when you don’t have these massive sources of information. Which also was why I really wanted to write these articles, to bring in different information.

And yeah, finally, is that we do need to have more public spaces to learn about these issues that I think we are solely lacking. So, yeah, it’s complicated. The why is complicated. These are some of my speculations that are grounded in some realities that I think could give listeners a sense of how complicated it is.

Release, Refrain, Restore

Yeah, it looks like there’s just a lot of factors at play here, not only in the practices of child detention, but also the media freedom in general, like democracy, the state of democracy in Malaysia, like the public space. Whether you’re allowed to say or do certain things or like access to information, as you mentioned, but also the awareness, like the geopolitical awareness of how we frame and understand these communities who come into Malaysia, why they come there and why it’s not just so easy for them to return. It is a complicated issue. And before we begin to untangle this, maybe just one more point, because you mentioned the lines of release, refrain and restore, maybe can you talk a bit more about that, about those three things and whether we need to do all of them at the same time, whether we have to focus on one before doing the other. Joshua, this was mentioned in your research, but Hannah, if you have any thoughts or opinions, feel free to jump in.

Yeah, so I’ve broadly written the different lines of action that needs to be taken if we really want to protect childhoods. And this is drawn from several conversations with child rights activists. And I didn’t want to be prescriptive, but I wanted to have broad lines of thinking.

The first step, or one of the key steps, is to release children. So regardless of what their migratory status is or circumstances are, we need to work towards releasing all children. So it’s not just to have a half hearted program that’s only releasing children that can be repatriated, but also all kinds of children, especially particularly even the Rohingya community who are stateless. And I spoke about restraint.

You need measures, policies, programs to protect children from being re-detained, because it doesn’t make sense if you release children and then after that they are re-detained and then put into detention centres, then it just becomes this revolving door.

And it’s another immense cost for taxpayers as well if we don’t think about that concurrently. And finally, it’s about restore measures, right? When children are released, you need to meet each child where they are, each child, where they’re at, based on the principle of the best interest of the child.

So really look into determining what this particular kid needs, whether it’s health care, whether it’s education, or whether it’s some kind of reunification with their families. If they are unaccompanied or separated, each child will have very different circumstances. But all of this fits very well with basically alternatives to detention.

A meaningful alternative to detention would think through all these lines and will be community based, will be sensitive to the needs of the child, will reinvolve different parties and different stakeholders. Ultimately, the goal here is to protect the child so that there’s no more harm done onto them.

Release Children

Hannah, do you have any further thoughts on this in relation to your research and your work in ATD throughout all these years?

Thanks, Bonnie, and thanks, Joshua, for all those comments. I think I won’t keep my comment very long here. I think I just want to underscore, echo, and highlight what Joshua said. The first thing that needs to happen is to release children. Just release children. I think that’s what the ATD worked for over a decade.

Detention is no place for a child. Let’s release children and. Let’s do whatever it takes. Let’s not bog ourselves down with bureaucracy. Let’s release them. Let’s embrace the nature of a pilot, learn from the mistakes and strengthen the program from there. Don’t delay the release of children anymore.

And then in policy and law, put in those provisions to keep children out of detention entirely. That’s what I really, really want to see and that’s what lots of child advocates and migration advocates want to see as well. So that’s my key message.

Public Awareness on Refugee Issues

Yeah. To follow up on your earlier point, you feel that one of the most important things to achieve this goal of releasing children is that we should invest in increasing public awareness on refugee issues. How do you think we can achieve that? What kind of advocacy that we need to do? What kind of, I don’t know, like research or journalistic reporting? What’s been the most effective in increasing public awareness and what we need to do more?

Thanks, Bonnie. I think my answer is going to be a bit depressing. I don’t think that with immigration detention specifically, that public awareness is high. So I think there still needs to be a lot more work.

I can’t really speak to what’s been successful. I think there is maybe a small bubble of people, maybe adjacent to the advocates, the advocate community that is aware of this and has participated in public events before.

But I think largely people, Malaysians globally, the public are not really aware of the harms of immigration detention, nor are they working to end it in any way. I think there’s no vested interest in seeing an end towards immigration detention at this point.

So I think that a lot of advocacy still needs to be done with the public. Ideally, then, we would move into that mobilisation and have advocacy by the public as well. I think this is going to be nothing big and fancy, but I think a lot of the advocacy that needs to happen with the public is just to keep having the conversations about immigration, detention, the harms of child detention, the work that’s gone into it.

The existence of alternatives to detention as a model, as a framework, aside from immigration, detention as a tool. I think talking about that issue and keeping it on people’s agendas is really important.

I think also, and I think I’ve said this to Joshua before as well, people that oppose child rights, that sounds awful. People that are pro immigration detention or the detention of migrants can be quite vocal about it and they can be quite public about their opinion. They’re commenting it on social media, they’re making their feeling of pro detention very known. And that’s what the community, the movement against immigration detention needs to do as well.

I think we need to be a lot more visible about our stance against immigration detention and signal to everyone, signal to the government, signal to policymakers, the shift in public opinion, because to them that will also drive up their political will to make a difference, to make a change.

And I said it in my research, public opinion is so critical to achieving long term change. And until this public opinion is swayed positively, there can be no substantial or sustained change at a policy level.

So it’s a long game for sure, but I think we can get there. I think this conversation is already one of those things that’s a great effort in keeping that conversation going and getting it on people’s radars.

Lived Experiences

Yeah. Thank you. That’s also what we hope to do here, again, to just get a word out and get the conversation going. But, Joshua, one of the things that I really liked about all of your research, actually, is that despite it being, like, a research and explainer, you provide all of the data, and all of those, you tend to just really focus on individual individuals, like the experiences of particular individuals, which I think provides really a much needed dimension in the explainers that we put out. But also, was this ever? And I’m aware that this issue, like the children detention, is part of a larger issue in enforced migration that you work on even outside of the context of Malaysia, right? So I’m wondering if this is like a conscious decision on your part to highlight individual stories in the hopes that or in the recognition that these kinds of stories are more effective in swaying public opinion or yeah. What are your thoughts on this?

I think if you look at the explainers and for these two explainers, when I actually crafted a learning map and in that learning map, I said,

If you want to learn about issues, start with lived experiences. And because lived experiences are complex and messy, they are grounded and they are extremely informative.

And I like to write my explainers in that way to start with lived experiences, really meet people where they’re at individual experiences, and from there tease out things that we can explain to the public.

So it’s really what I call a narrative explainer or narrative based explanatory narrative. Because if you start with very dense technical material, that learning process can be quite difficult, especially if you’re not exposed to the issue. Definitely, yes, it was a conscious decision, but I still think equal.

It’s important to be listening to people’s experiences, which is not a singular experience that represents all experiences. There are a multitude of different experiences that we need to try our best to grapple with.

And I do also want to add on to Hannah’s point about the public and just like thinking out loud here that I think any kind of public awareness sorry, can you hear me then? Yeah.

So any form of public awareness strategy also really needs to know who your audiences are. And I think for this issue, there could be very different strategies to speak to different audiences. That when we talk about the public.

So university students are a great group of people to be talking to. They’re talking about civil society. There’ll be a very different messaging strategy when you’re speaking to the civil service and a different strategy. And I think as advocates or writers, you need to be able to write to different audiences and speak to different audiences.

And even within university students, if you’re speaking to law students, you’ll be speaking in a very different way. If you’re speaking to sociology students or holly sciences, you also tailor a message. And I think working from that is extremely important as well. So just take your love out.

The Role of Research

But I do agree with that. But I want to also highlight your or echo your sentiment on lived experiences that can really bring out. I mean, despite speaking to different audiences, lived experience is something that we could all relate with. And I think to go back a bit further, I think that’s one of our strengths in this advocacy, right? I mean, obviously the opposing side can defend detention. Maybe they have their own narratives of how to portray people in detention as potential criminals, if not already criminals, which is something that we really need to dismantle. But when we have the lived experience, the natural lived experiences on our side about arguing for rights based policies, I do think that it can move people as all stories do, right? So I guess that also, again, mentioning returning back to your point, Joshua, and also Hannah, and I guess this is a wrap up question for both of you. What are the role of researchers and writers and these people who work in advocacy by either researching or writing or like interviewing lived experiences? What is the role of these people, of research, of narratives, in the advocacy efforts, in bringing together the public, in swaying the public opinion, increasing public awareness on these issues and eventually help create change? Hannah, you want to go first?

Thanks Bonnie. Big question. I would like to start by just sharing one point about lived experience narratives. And I just wanted to echo both of you, that they are so important and impactful and volume when you said we can all relate to it. I think that is true.

And I think most people are not bad or whatever that means. But when they are confronted with lived experience, it is such a part of them that’s inherently good, I would like to believe, and they’re able to empathise with it, they’re able to relate to it, and they’re able to want to help make it better.

And this is something that I think I see a lot in my work as well, even with government and immigration and across not just in Malaysia, but in the APAC region, they’re willing to have those conversations and they’re willing to have a mindset change. But of course, it is a system, right, that we’ve been talking about that sometimes makes it hard for that empathy to be practised.

But to answer your question, I think research is just a really useful tool when it comes to advocacy work. And that’s really what it is. I feel it’s a means towards an end, right? Research, it’s so useful in being able to document stories, document information, document narratives.

Research can pull a bunch of different knowledge together and highlight it for different purposes. Highlight it in a way that’s more accessible to the public, engaging the public to raise their awareness. It can be structured in a way that’s a policy brief.

So targeting governments with very concise information and very concise recommendations, helping them make a change. So research is just so useful in being able to uniquely cater information to different audiences. It’s useful in being able to pull together large sources of information, identify patterns and trends, which are, of course, really strong arguments to change opinions or to speak about an issue, not just with the government, but with people as well.

Research, at the end of the day, is a tool for learning. It creates and foregrounds sometimes knowledge that’s not often talked about. Or it creates new knowledge, it visits new theories, new speculations, new narratives for people to work with.

And I think what’s really useful about research is that it helps build an evidence-based for people to refer to. For example, in the context of my research, it helps build specific evidence as well. For example, just referring to the report we were discussing earlier, that’s localised evidence in a Malaysian context about the Rohingya refugee community, which is very specific. And it helps to share recommendations about how change can actually be started and be achieved.

And I think research is also really useful in the spaces we are able to create with research. So it’s not just that we produce research and then we put it online and then it’s done. Research is often used to start other conversations like this conversation where we’re talking about research, Joshua’s and my different research, actually Joshua’s and my similar research, and having this conversation, which is exploring it deeper, talking about other things.

When we do report launches with the government, this creates a space where we’re able to talk directly with the government about what’s in the research and beyond that, what changes need to happen. So I think research as a tool is quite multifaceted and really useful to not just the researcher in achieving that goal that they set up, the issue that they set out to unpack, but it also becomes useful to civil society as a tool for advocacy.

It becomes useful to the public as a tool for improving their knowledge and becomes useful to the government for being evidence based towards achieving change. So I think that is my answer. Thanks, Bonni.

What can the Listeners Do?

Thank you, Hannah. Yeah, I do definitely agree with that because I do think knowledge sharing itself is ultimately very important. Just balancing out the information and the access to information as well as the lived experiences that we’ve been talking about can really make a difference. Joshua, what are your thoughts on this? And maybe just to add on a bit to that question, if the listeners here are listening, how can they help? How can they help participate in pushing for all of these advocacy efforts?

Yeah, I think Hannah, you’ve summarised the multifacetedness of research and all the usefulness of it and where it can bring us. I think for me, if I were to talk about what researchers role, I think research from the outset is a very powerful tool and we need to see research as generative and to practise research as such, but to also see as such.

What I mean by that is that

We want to do research that is generative of new relationships, new ideas, new platforms, research that brings people together to talk about the important issues and also to always think about the afterlife of research as well.

I want to challenge our researchers out there, and I put that challenge on myself as well, is that we can’t be writing and putting our research on the shelves. We need to bring it out there to the public.

Different aspects of that one document can have very different new lives that have very different impacts. Today I was speaking to someone around a refugee leader about research actually, and this person told me that we need research that helps people feel as well. That’s why I said what he meant by that is that you do the core research but that’s not the final step.

Is that what you do with the contents of the research? You could use aspects of it to make documentaries or have other conversations with panel discussions. It needs to keep generating feelings, action and whatnot.

So yeah, that’s kind of how I think about research and why I really believe in that process. But even research itself is generated from relationships because as a researcher you’re speaking to a whole array of different people and those relationships also become part of your life too.

So it’s an incredibly meaningful process that has also other acting potential, I think, to your final question around what the public can do. I think take the research that we are talking about today, the explainers, use it as a seat for conversations, and organise groups in your schools and universities.

You focus on talking about these issues and bring these things up to your elected representatives, to members of parliament, people around you use what we’ve presented, the new narrative and IDC report scenes to generate. That’s one immediate thing, I think.

Thank you, Joshua. Hannah, you want to add some points for the non researchers and what they can do?

Thanks, Bonnie. No points. But again, to echo Joshua, I think the most important thing that people can do is to keep talking about it, and I said it earlier, but make your public opinion known as well. Whether it’s through commenting on social media, whether it’s walking through the streets of the backyard, but do that safely, if at all.

Whether it’s emailing your MPs and emailing your government representatives, keep informing yourself, keep reading research, keep talking about it and make your opinion known.

Thank you so much, Hannah, and thank you so much, Joshua. It’s been a pleasure discussing this topic with you.


And that wraps up our discussion with Joshua Low and Hannah Jambunathan. We’ve provided links to their research in the show notes at

If you’re listening to this podcast, chances are the issue of children in detention centres isn’t all that new to you. But it’s easy to get lost in a bubble and assume, like I still do sometimes on a lot of issues, that the facts are obvious.

But they’re not. A lot of people still don’t know how much children are being harmed, and how much we’re funding it through taxpayer money. As the issue that kept coming up in our discussions, increasing public awareness and swaying public opinion to pressure the government to release the children remains the most important thing we can do.

So, make some noise. Share this podcast, and Joshua and Hannah’s research. Be vocal on social media. Create your own discussion groups. If you’re a Malaysian, call your MPs. The over one thousand children in detention centres could really, really use your voice.

My name is Bonnibel Rambatan, and this has been Southeast Asia Dispatches. Brought to you by New Naratif, and produced by Dania Joedo. I’ll see you around.



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?

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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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