Categorised | Letters to the Editor

Probe high number of deaths of migrants in custody

THE Malaysian Bar is disturbed about the high number of migrants who have died while in custody.

In July 2009, the Dewan Rakyat was told that some 2,029 persons died in prisons, rehabilitation centres and immigration detention centres between 2002 and 1 June 2009. More recently, Suhakam Commissioner Datuk Siva Subramaniam was quoted as saying that 1,300 foreigners died in detention within the past six years. The Dewan Rakyat figure would mean that an average of one migrant dies in custody almost every day!

The authorities should conduct a thorough investigation to identify the underlying causes for this large number of deaths. Brushing off these deaths as being due to illness, asthma or suicide is unacceptable. When individuals are placed in custody and denied their freedom of movement, the detaining authority is responsible for their well-being. The detaining authority has a duty of care towards all such individuals, which is a responsibility that should be taken very seriously.

In the event of a death, the questions that should be asked include whether the death could have been avoided, and whether the authorities were negligent in fulfilling their duty of care.

In order to address the worrying situation of deaths of migrants in custody, we call on the authorities to:

Take greater care in regularly monitoring the health of all those in custody, especially those held in immigration detention centres. This involves conducting regular medical check-ups and allowing the detainees easier access to medical personnel and facilities;
Give serious attention to health-related complaints made by the detainees;
Conduct an inquest each time there is a death in custody;
Reprimand and take disciplinary action against all staff members who, through neglect or indifference, fail to prevent a death from occurring;
Give lawyers and family members greater access to detainees and detention centres; and
Monitor those in custody more carefully, including the use of closed-circuit surveillance and more regular patrols.

Another concrete step would be to set up a Board of Visitors in every detention centre. The establishment of such boards, which would have the power to conduct unannounced visits, would demand greater accountability from the system. It would compel the detaining authorities to upgrade their facilities, become more transparent in their operations, and be more vigilant regarding what is happening within the detention centres.

The reports of deaths of migrants in custody are not new. Migrants, especially those in custody, are extremely vulnerable. They are more cut off from their families and community than Malaysians held in custody. Therefore there is an urgent need to take immediate measures to ensure that their welfare is protected.

The Malaysian Bar also reiterates its call for open inquests to be held promptly and expeditiously to determine the cause of death of any person in custody.

The litmus test of how civilised we are as a nation is measured by the treatment we accord those who are the most defenceless and vulnerable among us.

Datuk M Ramachelvam
Law Reform and Special Areas Committee
Bar Council

18 November 2009

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