KUALA LUMPUR (REUTERS) - The United Nations' refugee agency said Malaysia has not allowed it to meet detained refugees and asylum seekers for more than a year as the country cracks down on undocumented migrants, raising concerns over the status of vulnerable people.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) previously visited the centres in order to determine who should be given refugee status and allowed to leave, but Malaysia's government has toughened its stance on immigration this year.
Thousands of undocumented foreigners have been rounded up in what the authorities say are efforts to stop the spread of the coronavirus, and the state-funded National Human Rights Commission said it was concerned about overcrowding in the lock-ups.
Malaysia's Immigration Department, which runs the detention centres, did not respond to requests for comment.
The Home Ministry did not have an immediate comment.
The UNHCR told Reuters on Wednesday that it had not been allowed to visit the centres since August 2019.
It did not say why, citing ongoing discussions.
"This has unfortunately prevented UNHCR in seeing detained persons of concern in order to determine those in need of international protection and to advocate for their release," UNHCR told Reuters in e-mailed comments on Wednesday (Nov 11).
"We are aware and concerned that there remains in detention a number of persons of concern, including vulnerable individuals, requiring our attention."
Although Malaysia does not recognise refugees, it allows free movement to those given protection by the UNHCR.
The agency was able to register 6,039 individuals as asylum-seekers by October this year compared with 27,323 through all of 2019, the agency said.
Among those it had not been able to see were hundreds of Rohingya arrested after months at sea.
"Refugees and asylum seekers like Rohingya have no opportunity to be released without the UNHCR," said Mr Jerald Joseph, a commissioner with the National Human Rights Commission.
Mr Joseph estimated that over 1,000 asylum seekers were in detention camps, which he believed were now home to a third more people than the 12,500 they had been built for.
The others in the lock-ups are undocumented foreigners awaiting deportation.
Covid-19 outbreaks have been reported from at least five of the detention centres and over 1,000 have been affected in these clusters.
Rights groups and detainees have said the conditions in the detention camps were brutal.
Last month, Indonesia's Sovereign Migrant Workers Coalition cited former detainees as saying they had been treated like animals and hosed down with disinfectant after a Covid-19 outbreak.
One former detainee, an Indonesian woman who was released in January, told Reuters hundreds of detainees were tightly packed in a room, including the old, sick, pregnant women and children.
Food was inadequate and an official hit the detainees, she added.
"It was like all the detainees in the immigration detention centre were not humans," she said.
The authorities have in the past acknowledged that conditions at the migrant lock-ups could be improved.