Malaysia: Clusters at Immigration Detention Centers Drive COVID-19 Spike

Nisha David and Noah Lee
Kuala Lumpur
200526-MY-Immigration-620.jpg Authorities transport undocumented immigrants from the Selayang wholesale market in Kuala Lumpur to detention centers, May 11, 2020.
S. Mahfuz/BenarNews


The Malaysian government on Tuesday reported its highest daily increase in new coronavirus cases since April 3, driven mostly by recently detected clusters at three of its 14 immigration detention centers – one of which a recent detainee described as overcrowded and unsanitary.

On Tuesday, the government confirmed 187 new COVID-19 cases, bringing the nationwide total to 7,604. No new coronavirus-related deaths were reported as the toll remained at 115.

“Local transmission of the virus among foreigners involved 155 new cases, which were detected at the Bukit Jalil Immigration Detention Depot,” Noor Hisham Abdullah, the director-general of health, told reporters on Tuesday, adding that officials were awaiting results from the other clusters at detention centers at Kuala Lumpur International Airport and in Semenyih, Selangor.

Another 13 positive cases involved security guards at a shopping mall in Cheras, a district in the Malaysian capital, he said.

All undocumented immigrants who tested negative for COVID-19 while in detention were to be deported to their home countries, said Ismail Sabri Yaakob, a senior minister security.

Ismail, who on Tuesday chaired the government’s special meeting on managing undocumented migrants, told reporters that officials with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs would discuss with their counterparts arrangements to transport their citizens back to their countries.

“Among other things decided during the meeting was to make it compulsory for COVID-19 tests to be conducted on all detainees at the immigration depots at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, Bukit Jalil and Semenyih,” Ismail told a news conference broadcast live on national television and social media platforms. Those are the three centers blamed for the infection clusters.

Meanwhile, a Rohingya who left a different detention center last month described conditions inside that facility.

“I was in immigration detention from March 2018 until just recently, April 10, at the Lenggeng depot in Negeri Sembilan. I was told that the center could fit 1,500 people and when I was there it was pretty packed,” said the 18-year-old who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal.

“The room I was in could fit 100 people, but due to the increase in the number of people being detained, there were more than 160 people in the room,” the told BenarNews.

He said those in his room could not maintain proper hygiene because they shared a toilet.

“The sleeping area is very cramped, from edge to edge. We all sleep on the cement floor. No mattress, no sheet, nothing,” he said. “It’s not surprising that this virus spread, knowing how it is inside.”

Officials did not release details about coronavirus cases in the Lenggeng depot or 10 other detention centers not included in the cluster.

Hospital beds available

Ismail, the senior security official, announced that immigrants who tested positive for COVID-19 would be treated at the Ministry of Health’s temporary hospital at the Malaysia Agricultural Expo Park in Serdang, Selangor, while those who tested negative would stay in quarantine before being sent home.

He said the government was adding two more hospitals to treat immigrants suffering from the coronavirus, namely at the National Leprosy Center in Sungai Buloh and the old maternity ward building at the Kuala Lumpur Hospital. The three facilities will have the capacity to treat 1,430 patients at any given time.

Ismail told reporters that efforts to quarantine and return immigrants to their home countries represent efforts to protect citizens who largely abide by the Movement Control Order, which establishes social distancing requirements as Malaysia battles the pandemic.

“Immigrants have to understand that some entered the country illegally. I do not know any country in this world that allows undocumented migrants to roam freely,” he said. “Those who enter this country illegally commit an offense under the law and can be arrested.

“They should thank us. Imagine if they were not arrested and spread the virus to innocent Malaysians,” he said.

Globally, more than 5.5 million people have been infected by COVID-19 and nearly 348,000 have died as of Tuesday, according to data compiled by disease experts at U.S.-based Johns Hopkins University.

Hadi Azmi in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.


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