Malaysian authorities start 'witch hunt' for Rohingyas fleeing migrant detention centre

Screengrab of a video showing Rohingya refugees running along the highway, fleeing the police, on the night of April 19. This video was filmed by a local resident and shared on TikTok by a Malaysian media outlet called Kosmoonline.
Screengrab of a video showing Rohingya refugees running along the highway, fleeing the police, on the night of April 19. This video was filmed by a local resident and shared on TikTok by a Malaysian media outlet called Kosmoonline. © TikTok

Nearly 500 Rohingya refugees fled a detention centre where they were being held in Malaysia on April 20. Dozens of videos show them running along the highways, panicked. Most were later arrested by police. However, on April 26, Malaysian authorities called on the local population to find the 61 Rohingya still on the run, raising cries of alarm from human rights activists like our Observer. She says it is awful to see migrants fleeing persecution in Myanmar being “treated like criminals” again. 


Nearly 500 Rohingya refugees escaped from an immigration detention centre in Sungai Bakap, a town on Malaysia’s Penang Island on April 20. Six people – including two children – were hit by cars and killed as they fled along a highway about a dozen kilometres from the centre. 

A number of videos showing this dangerous exodus along the highway circulated on Facebook and TikTok. Some of them even showed bodies next to the road. 

Videos filmed by drivers on the highway show dozens of people running along the highway being pursued by police cars. The fleeing group included men, women and children, some of whom were barefoot. 

@kosmoonline Reply to @tapauhabis_ Seramai enam warga asing termasuk dua kanak-kanak yang cuba menyeberangi Lebuh Raya Utara-Selatan di Kilometer (KM) 165 dekat Nibong Tebal maut dilanggar kenderaan ketika usaha melarikan diri pagi tadi.#beritatiktok ♬ original sound - Kosmo!
This video was fimed on the night of April 20. It shows Rohingya refugees recently escaped from a detention centre running alongside the highway, fleeing the Malaysian police.

On April 25, authorities called on the local population for help finding 61 of the refugees who were still on the run. 

'The public was urged to go to a witch hunt for them'

Heidy Quah works for “Refuge for the Refugees” (RFTF), a Malaysian association fighting for migrant rights.


The public was urged to go to a witch hunt for them. Locals were told to be careful of them, [the authorities] said they are dangerous because the only fled their country because they were in danger. The population was instructed not to offer assistance to the refugees and to alert the authorities. But these detainees aren’t criminals. They aren’t murderers or rapists. They are people who fled their country because of war. 

Since 2017, Rohingyas have been landing on the shores of Malaysia by boat. Most are initially detained in a centre in Langkawi, then transferred to the temporary centre in Sungai Bakap, located in the northwest of the Malaysian peninsula.  

Long persecuted in their home country of Myanmar, more than a million Rohingya have fled to neighbouring countries. The overwhelming majority went to Bangladesh. There are an estimated 150,000 Rohingya refugees in Malaysia. 

>> Read more on The Observers: ‘In every camp there’s a disaster’: Monsoon rains in Bangladesh worsen conditions for the Rohingya

However, Malaysia, which is not a signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention, does not give these refugees any kind of protected status and, instead, considers them illegal migrants. Only those who manage to obtain refugee status from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees are allowed to remain in the country.


@dik_jat Reply to @pakart_86 done👌#fyp ♬ Selamat Malam Rohingya - Syed Amran Al-Yahya
This video, posted on TikTok, shows police gathering a group of apprehended Rohingya refugees along the side of the highway.


Most of the Rohingya refugees in Malaysia are kept in migrant detention centres, sometimes for several years. Both local and international human rights organisations are extremely worried about the conditions in these centres. 

'They are hotspots for disease and infection'

Quah explained that the Malaysian government prevents migrant rights organisations from visiting detention centres. But the descriptions given by refugees who spent time in these centres are worrying:

Some of these camps are so cramped that people don't have enough space to sleep correctly.

When migrants arrive in these centres, they have to hand over all of their belongings. In exchange, they are only given half a piece of soap, maybe a toothbrush, two t-shirts and two pairs of pants. The women aren’t given enough sanitary products to manage when they have their periods. And these centres don’t provide diapers for babies. One mother told me that she used a t-shirt as a diaper. 

Sanitary conditions and health conditions are a concern. They are hotspots for disease and infection. Sometimes they don't receive enough medical attention as well. That is what caused a riot in the centre on April 20. 

There is a lot of mistreatment, a lot of abuse. Some of the people are even beaten up for no good reason. 

Malaysia hasn’t been sending Rohingya back to Myanmar, which is what they would likely do to illegal migrants not protected by international refugee status, like the many Indonesian workers who cross over.  

Quah denounced the conditions in these detention centres on Facebook in 2020 and was later charged with posting “offensive content” in regard to the government.  But on Monday, April 25 she learned the charges had been dropped during a hearing in Kuala Lumpur.