KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 8 — The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) said today they were dismayed and shocked by the reported deaths of two detainees who died while attempting to escape the Bidor immigration depot, reminding Putrajaya again about the harms of indiscriminate detention on already vulnerable groups.

More than 130 ethnic Rohingya and Myanmar nationals detained at the temporary immigration detention centre in Perak escaped after a riot broke out at the centre on February 1, according to the police, prompting a nationwide hunt.

One of those who escaped was said to have been killed in a road accident. It is unclear how the other died.

“UNHCR is shocked and deeply saddened by the news of two detainees who tragically died while attempting to escape from the Bidor temporary immigration depot in the western Malaysian state of Perak on 1 February. We convey our sincere condolences to the family of the victims,” the UN body said in a statement this morning.

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“UNHCR is also concerned over the incident in the temporary immigration depot that led to the deaths, where 131 detainees — many of them reported to be from Myanmar, including ethnic Rohingyas — escaped following reported riots in the depot.”

The UN body has long been concerned about the state of immigration detention facilities around Malaysia and has called for immediate reforms to ensure these facilities and detention protocols meet international standards.

UNHCR said there remain detained persons — including vulnerable individuals — requiring attention because they may be asylum-seekers or refugees.

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The Malaysian government does not recognise both and the agency has been barred from visiting its immigration depots since 2019, preventing UNHCR workers from visiting detainees and providing assistance.

“As we have not received approval from Immigration authorities to access immigration detention centers since August 2019, this has unfortunately prevented UNHCR from seeing those detained to determine if there are individuals in need of international protection and to advocate for their release,” it said.

“UNHCR has advocated, and continues to do so, with the Immigration Department and relevant government agencies and ministries, including at the highest level, for immediate access to those who may need our protection.”

Malaysia has come under the spotlight for how it treats migrants and refugees, who are often subject to human rights abuses and are denied legal protection under local laws. International rights groups like Amnesty International have expressed concerns that conditions in Malaysia's immigration depots are deplorable, with many failing to meet human rights standards.

Putrajaya said it treats detainees “in accordance with the law” but admitted it could improve facilities in its immigration depots.

UNHCR said seeking asylum should not be an unlawful act, and that detention should only be a last resort.

“In all cases, detention should be a measure of last resort, should be authorised by the law and only undertaken if necessary and reasonable in all the circumstances, and proportionate to a legitimate aim,” it said.

“Alternatives to detention need to be considered before resorting to detention.”