KUALA LUMPUR: Six Rohingya refugees were on Wednesday killed while crossing a highway in Malaysia as hundreds of them fled a detention center, police said.
At least 520 Rohingya detainees escaped from the temporary detention unit in northern Penang state in the early hours. Around 360 of them had since been rearrested, Wan Hassan Wan Ahmad, police chief in neighboring Kedah state, told journalists, while confirming the deaths had taken place as the victims had tried to cross a road.
“Six people were killed. Two adult males, two adult females, one boy, and one girl,” he said. “We are launching an operation, including roadblocks, to ensure there is no one escaping. We also seek help from the public to notify us if there is anything.”
The temporary detention center, which typically houses illegal immigrants, is a camp located near the state border of Kedah and Penang. While the facility is managed by the Penang Immigration Department, it falls under the jurisdiction of Kedah police. Ahmad said only 23 guards were on duty when the Rohingya fled.
He added that an investigation into the breakout was underway.
“We need to identify the real reason. There might have been elements of dissatisfaction, but we cannot conclude until investigations are completed.”
Malaysia, which has a dominant Muslim population, is a key destination for Rohingya fleeing persecution in Buddhist-majority Myanmar.
The refugees at the Penang detention center have been detained there for more than a year, according to non-governmental organization Beyond Borders Malaysia.
“These refugees have been held in detention for more than a year. There have been no efforts, or at least not that I know of, to create a safe passage toward asylum,” Beyond Borders Malaysia founder, Mahi Ramakrishnan, told Arab News.
Ramakrishnan said that although Malaysian law made no distinction between refugees and undocumented migrants, it was bound to treat them “like human beings, by creating an enabling environment, in line with international law,” adding that, “keeping them locked up indefinitely in immigration or police detention isn’t the way forward and neither is it progressive.”
Malaysia is not a signatory to the UN refugee convention, but officially hosts 180,000 refugees and asylum seekers awaiting relocation to a third country. More than 100,000 of them are Rohingyas. The actual number was believed to be far higher as many remained undocumented.