Fauwaz Abdul Aziz | Apr 23, 08 10:44am (Malaysiakini)
It was only a matter of time before trouble broke out at the 14 immigration detention centres taken over earlier this year by voluntary corps Rela - as the Lenggeng incident in Negri Sembilan has proved.
"We anticipated it to happen sooner or later. Lenggeng is only the beginning of worse things to come," said Migrant Care coordinator Alex Ong when contacted yesterday.
Ong was commenting on the riot on Monday in which about 60 Burmese detainees reportedly tried to pull down the perimeter fence and afterwards torched an administration building.
More than 100 Rela members, riot police, civil defence department and fire and rescue service personnel had to be called in to contain the riot.
According to state police chief Osman Salleh, the detainees had vented their anger against the authorities after their application for resettlement to a third country had been denied.
Ong, however, questioned this version of the story and said the more likely reasons involve the poor living conditions and treatment that migrants receive in such detention centres.
Many human rights and migrant groups have long decried the harsh treatment, overcrowding, poor sanitation, and inadequate food and medical facilities.
Since Jan 15 when Rela took over the running of Lenggeng from the prison department, the plight of those detained has gotten from bad to worse, Ong claimed.
"We have always opposed Rela taking over because we expected the move to be accompanied by complaints of more human rights abuses and abusive treatment," he said.
Rela is already saddled with a poor track record in relation to treatment of migrants, given its previous role in rounding up undocumented foreigners in Malaysia and the number of complaints this attracted.
Lending strength to Ong's contention that the riot was not over the issue of resettlement, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said that no refugees in Lenggeng have been told that their resettlement request had been denied.
"Our records indicate that their cases are still being actively processed by our office," said spokesperson Yante Ismail when contacted.
There are 75 refugees and asylum-seekers known to UNHCR in Lenggeng, of whom seven are non-Burmese and 68 are mostly Chin Burmese. It is still unclear whether and how many of these were involved in the riot, said Yante.
All-Burma Democratic Force vice-chairperson Mohammad Sadek pointed out that it is not usually the Chin - who are predominantly Christian - whose applications for resettlement in Western countries are denied.
"It is the Burmese Rohingyas who have complained that their applications for resettlement have been turned down," said Mohammad.
A social worker who had visited the centre a few weeks ago said a day-long hunger strike had been held on April 3 by a large number of refugees, to protest the severe beating of a Burmese detainee by Rela officers.
"It took a senior immigration officer to come to the detention centre to persuade them to call off their hunger strike," said the worker, who declined to be identified.
"I think things only got worse after that, which is why the riot happened."
Osman said 14 foreigners - six Burmese, six Indonesians, one Vietnamese and one Cambodian - have been called in for questioning over the riot.
He said they were arrested under Sections 148 (possession of dangerous weapons) and 438 (committing mischief by fire or use of explosive substance) of the Penal Code.
Burmese detainees torch Lenggeng detention centre
Apr 21, 08 5:41pm
At least 60 Burmese immigrants rioted in the Lenggeng detention centre in Negri Sembilan today, torching a building after failing to win asylum to a third country.
The group initially gathered outside their block at the detention and tried to bring down the perimeter fence, local state police chief Osman Abdullah was quoted as saying by the daily Star newspaper website.
"The authorities tried talking to them but a short while later, they turned violent and then gained entry into the office and set it ablaze," he added.
Osman said about 200 police and security personnel were deployed to bring the situation under control.
The Lenggeng detention facility houses 820 illegal immigrants, of which 218 are from Burma, he said.
"We are still investigating the cause, but at this point in time all I can say is that they were unhappy because they heard that their application to a third country had been rejected," Osman added.
Officials at the detention centre could not be reached for comment.
Perhimpunan Indonesia untuk Buruh Migran Berdaulat
(Member of Migrant Forum in Asia and International NGO
Platform on Migrant Workers' Convention)