In May 2020, Malaysia faced national and global criticism for conducting immigration raids in locked-down areas where Covid-19 clusters had emerged. During these raids, more than 2,000 undocumented migrants, including some refugees and asylum seekers were arrested, among them approximately 100 children.

Within weeks of these raids, Malaysia has now seen a surge of Covid-19 cases (776 cases as of 19 June 2020) in its overcrowded immigration detention facilities, with infections now having been reported in 5 separate detention centres. On 11 June, Malaysia saw its first Covid-19 fatality in immigration detention, a 67 year old man from India, reportedly a stranded tourist, who died in Bukit Jalil immigration detention centre. This detention centre has accounted for over 80% of all Covid-19 cases in immigration detention facilities in Malaysia. On 17 June, it was further reported that a 4 year old boy from Myanmar and his mother, who had also been detained at Bukit Jalil, had tested positive for Covid-19. 

The Malaysia government has announced that detainees who test negative for Covid-19 will be deported, while those who test positive will be sent to quarantine centres and treated before deportation. However, given the virus’ incubation period, there remains a risk that testing could fail to pick up a positive diagnosis; as a result, further outbreaks of Covid-19 in detention centres are a distinct possibility, as is the risk of deported detainees exporting the virus to another country. Rights groups have also warned of the risk of refoulement, given that asylum seekers have been among those arrested; UNHCR has been denied access to Malaysia’s detention centres since August 2019.

Despite these outbreaks in detention centres, the government has refused to impose a moratorium on immigration enforcement activities. 

These developments come at a time of a significant rise in xenophobia against refugees and migrants in Malaysia, coupled with increasingly harsh government policies against these groups.