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Malaysia: Stop plans to cane Rohingya refugees and release those already imprisoned

The Malaysian authorities must immediately abandon plans to whip at least 20 Rohingya men who are being punished simply for trying to seek safety. The government should release all other jailed Rohingya refugees – including women and children – who have been unlawfully singled out, convicted and imprisoned for alleged “immigration offences,” which are contrary to international law, Amnesty International said today.

A Malaysian court has the authority to strike out a caning sentence against the Rohingya men in the coming days. The men, who were allowed to disembark from a boat along with hundreds of other people off the country’s coast in April, are part of a group of 31 Rohingya men convicted of so-called “offences” under the Immigration Act 1959/63 in June. All 31 men were sentenced to seven months in prison, with at least 20 of the group sentenced to three strokes of the cane.

“The plan to viciously beat Rohingya refugees is not only cruel and inhuman – it’s unlawful under international standards. To inflict such a violent punishment as judicial caning amounts to torture,” said Rachel Chhoa-Howard, Malaysia Researcher at Amnesty International.

“The men who face violent lashings on top of jail terms have already fled persecution and crimes against humanity in Myanmar. They also survived a dangerous journey at sea to Malaysia in search of safety. The inhumanity of this approach is atrocious.”

Together with the men, nine women were also convicted to seven months jail on similar charges of entering and staying in Malaysia without a valid work permit. Fourteen children have been charged, and are also facing jail terms. Malaysia’s Immigration Act imposes six strokes of the cane, fines and up to five years’ imprisonment for people who are deemed to be in Malaysia irregularly. Amnesty International understands that the hundreds of others who disembarked from the boat in question are currently being held in immigration detention.

Entering or staying in a country irregularly – in other words, without the government’s permission – should never be considered criminal offences. Under international human rights law, the criminalization of irregular migration exceeds the legitimate interests of states in regulating migration to their territories. Furthermore, every person – regardless of their migration status – has the right to liberty, and no one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest or detention. In any case, children should never be detained for immigration reasons under any circumstances, as it is never in their best interests.

“The Malaysian authorities seem determined to make an example of these refugees. These shocking punishments, including the caning, must be quashed and the refugees released immediately,” said Rachel Chhoa-Howard.

“The government should protect the rights of all refugees seeking safety – it is every state’s obligation under international law. If they do not, the international community, including the UN, must take the government to task for their treatment of Rohingya.”

Malaysia has boasted of pushing refugee boats back in highly militarized operations. In June, Amnesty International and others received reports that the government was considering sending another boat of Rohingya refugees back out to sea by placing them on the same vessel they arrived in. On 14 July 2020, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin stated that this plan would not be carried out, in response to a parliamentary question.

“The Malaysian government must stop their appalling mistreatment of Rohingya refugees, provide them protection in these difficult times, and treat them with basic humanity,” Rachel Chhoa-Howard said.

“Other ASEAN governments must also step up and adopt an approach of responsibility-sharing to ensure the protection of lives at sea. This is even more urgent, as hundreds more Rohingya refugees are understood to remain in open water, at risk of starvation and death after spending months seeking safe harbour.”


Since the start of 2020, up to 1,400 Rohingya people have been stranded on boats in the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal after undertaking extremely dangerous journeys, fleeing persecution in Myanmar and the hardships of refugee camps in Bangladesh.

In April, the Malaysian authorities allowed 202 Rohingya people to disembark from a boat adrift off the coast of Langkawi. Other boats have been pushed back by the coastguard and military and since returned to Bangladesh. The Bangladesh authorities have disembarked those on board and held some of them on the island of Bhashan Char, in the Bay of Bengal, with limited access to their families or humanitarian and protection services. These conditions may amount to arbitrary detention.

In early June, the Malaysian authorities allowed a second boat carrying 269 Rohingya people to disembark after its engine was damaged. Numerous people were reported to have died during the journey, including one woman whose body was found on board. Reuters then reported that, according to two anonymous Malaysian officials, plans were being made to put these latest survivors – men, women and children – onto a boat and send them back to sea. The head of the Malaysian maritime agency later refused to deny these plans, all while acknowledging that dozens on the ship had not survived. Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin later stated that the government would not be implementing such a plan, in response to a question from a Member of Parliament.

Amnesty International has previously documented how judicial corporal punishment in Malaysia amounts to torture. Government officials tear into the flesh of prisoners with rattan canes (rotan) travelling up to 160 kilometres per hour. The pain inflicted by caning is so severe that victims often lose consciousness as a result. Suffering can last for weeks or even years, both in terms of physical disabilities and psychological trauma. Under international human rights law, all forms of corporal punishment are prohibited – they violate the absolute prohibition of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment and often amount to torture.