As I was researching the rights of refugee children — or the lack of here in Malaysia, I visited many homes and schools of refugees.
The children always welcomed me with the warmest of smiles, innocent despite the difficult circumstances of their lives.
This is why I cannot comprehend the need to put this innocence behind bars.
Today, the global campaign to “End the immigration detention of children” will hold an event for the public from 6-8pm at The Square, Publika in Kuala Lumpur.
It will include a short video clip and talks by Malaysian and refugee children. That we even need this campaign in our nation saddens me. In an ideal world, children should not be behind bars but in schools and playgrounds.
In Malaysia, refugees and asylum seekers are considered “illegal immigrants” as they do not carry the proper documents to justify their stay here.
Even if they are registered under the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR), they are still subject to arrest and detention, and are usually released only after an appeal from UNHCR.
In Malaysia, according to the UNHCR, there were some 108, 336 refugees and asylum seekers registered with them at the end of August 2013.
Of these, some 25,000 are children. They are mostly from Burma, Sri Lanka, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan. They came to Malaysia from these conflict-torn countries to seek a safer life.
Because of the lack of laws to protect them in Malaysia, they are often victims of exploitation and extortion and some — no official numbers are available — do end up in immigration detention centres.
But it’s not just refugee and asylum-seeking children who are detained, stateless children can also end up in these detention centres.
Born and raised in Malaysia, these children may be orphans or come from families who cannot afford to register their children’s births. They have no legal identification and therefore they are at risk of immigration detention.
As reported in the “Status reports on children rights in Malaysia — 2012” collated by the Child Rights Coalition, when the children are detained, it usually takes at least three months for them to be released.
According to the campaign, there are currently 12 immigration detention centres operating in the country. Conditions are terrible even for adults. And according to human rights reports, the centres are overcrowded and not too sanitary.
Yet the detained migrants include children, babies and nursing mothers. Sometimes, children are separated from their families and detained with adults whom they do not know. They have poor nutrition and no access to education.
The campaign aims to end all of these, but more importantly, to create awareness in our society that this is going on. Malaysia may not be a signatory of the United Nations Refugee Convention and its protocol.
However, this country has signed and agreed on Conventions of the Rights of the Child (CRC). Article 37 (b) of the CRC clearly states that every child has the rights of his or her own liberty and that arrest, detention or imprisonment of a child shall be in conformity with the law and must only be the last resort.
The CRC also says in Article 37 (c) that every child who is deprived from their liberty that is being detained has to be treated with respect and humanity.
With the current condition of immigration detention centres here in Malaysia, these children are not just deprived of their liberty but also of their basic human rights. Since the Malaysian government has already signed the CRC, it only makes sense for them to adhere to it.
A child’s place is not behind bars. It is with his family, with the freedom to play under the sun without fear.
The global campaign to “End the immigration detention of children” will hold an event for the public Friday, Oct. 4 from 6-8pm at The Square, Publika. – October 4, 2013.
*Syahirah Rashid is a journalism and international studies student from Monash University.