Listening to Van Vel Thang’s (not his real name) story was like listening to a tourist rate the various hotels he’s been to in Malaysia. Only the “hotels” were the various detentions centres that he was detained and shuffled back and forth over a period of 7 months.

Vel Thang was arrested by the Immigration in Batu Pahat, Johor in December last year. He holds a UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) card, which was why, he explained, “I didn’t run away. They stopped me before, at KLCC (Kuala Lumpur City Centre – a shopping mall) but I had a UNHCR card so they let me go”. In Batu Pahat, the Immigration people asked me “Do you have an identity card?” I said no. “Do you have a passport?”. I said no. I told them I am a refugee and I have a UNHCR card. They told me to “follow us to the station – you can tell your story there”.

At the station, they told me that “if UNHCR comes tonight, you can go”. It was Saturday, and when we called the UNHCR hotline, they told us that their office is closed and that they can only send people on Monday.” Batu Pahat is a town in Johor, whilst the only UNHCR office is in the capital city of Kuala Lumpur – two states away.

They were sent to Pekan Nenas detention centre, where they spent 57 days in detention. “Nobody can visit us for the first 14 days, so we waited for that period to be over, but the UNHCR never came. The Immigration officers told us that the UNHCR did not want to come, but when we called the UNHCR, they told us that the Immigration are not letting them in. “We went on a hunger strike for 10 days”.

After that, Vel Thang was sent to Tanah Merah Detention Centre in Kelantan, where he was detained for a further month before being sent to Ajil detention centre in Terengganu. There he spent another 3 months before being shuttled back to Tanah Merah. “The UNHCR called the Immigration to tell them not to deport us, but they couldn’t promise when they could see us. So in the end I signed a voluntary deportation letter and was deported to the Thai border.”

“We were transported with a lorry and a van. It was midnight. Before they put us in the van they took everything from us. They took all our handphones and money. They only gave back pocket money. We stopped near Golok river on the Malaysian side and they asked us to go into the forest. There four agents were waiting for us and took us across the river into Thailand. I called my friend and arranged for payment, so the next night they took us across the border back into Malaysia.”

“It was very difficult in the detention centre. The other detention centres were ok, but Tanah Merah was bad. There was not enough rice. Every day I was hungry. They didn’t have a doctor. They gave Panadol (Paracetamol) for everything. Only 1 tablet. Once my friend had a high fever. He was having convulsions. The guard saw but he said he couldn’t do anything. Sometimes they say “kalau mati, mati lah”. (“if you will die, then death it is”).”

“There were lots of bed bugs. We couldn’t sleep at night. When we complained, they said “What do you think this is? Your own house?” Once there was this guy who didn’t understand Malay and so didn’t know that we could only wash our clothes on certain days. So he went to wash his clothes. The guard got very angry and started to beat him. I told the guard that he wasn’t being disobedient – he just didn’t know the language. The guard asked me “Who are you? Are you his father? Are you his mother?”

“In detention, we think about our wife, our children, how they are doing. We don’t have enough to eat. It is always very hot. A lot of people’s brains got damaged in there”, GA said, referring to mental illness caused by the stress and suffering of detention. “One guy, he gets very quiet, but when you ask him how he is, he gets very angry and wants to beat people up. This other guy cannot hear people call his name. He will be playing chess and it will be his turn but he just sit there. Someone would call his name, but he doesn’t hear. Only when we shake him would he say “did you call me?””