By WAI MOE
KUALA LUMPUR — Two Burmese migrant workers who were detained at an immigration detention center in Malaysia have died of leptospirosi, an ailment caused by unhealthy drinking water, sources said.
According to the Burma Worker Rights Protection Committee, two migrant workers died in Bukit Mertajam at Bukit Mertajam Hospital following their detention in Juru Immigration Detention Center in Pulau Pinang Province.
“We heard that a second Burmese from the immigration camp died on Monday. On May 12, another Burmese died of the same cause,” said Ye Min Tun, the secretary of the group. The names of the dead were not available.
“There is no proper drinking water system for detained foreigners,” said Ye Min Tun.
“There is no health care for detainees.”
Malaysian health officials told local newspapers that about 25 people from the immigration camp have contracted leptospirosi and are being treated now. One man is in critical condition.
Leptospirosis is commonly transmitted by allowing water that has been contaminated by animal urine to come into contact with unhealed cuts or abrasions on the skin, eyes or mucous membranes. It is a relatively rare bacterial infection in humans, health experts said.
“Out of the 23 cases under treatment as of yesterday, one has died. Three were discharged, leaving 19 cases still under treatment now,” said Director-General of Health Tan Sri Dr Mohd Ismail Merican, in a statement.
Former inmates said that water storage facilities in the detention camp are near toilet areas. There are three buildings in the camp. An estimated 700 foreigners, held by immigration authorities for various offenses, are detained there.
Earlier this year, two Burmese migrant workers died at a detention center. Two men, indentified as Ko Paul and Kyaw Swa, died in January 2008, sources said. No cause of death was given.
“After they tighten the rules in the centers, immigration officials and RELA [a government-backed group that focuses on illegal immigration] harassed detainees at the center,” said a former detainee who spoke on condition of anonymity.
He said that during searches detainees are sometimes beaten. RELA is a mass group that is used to suppress illegal migrant workers in Malaysia. Human rights groups say RELA members are not trained properly as professionals. In 2005, authorities granted RELA the right to help oversee immigration detention centers and arrest illegal migrants.
In an effort to escape economic hardship at home, millions of Burmese migrant workers are in neighboring countries in Southeast Asia, particularly Malaysia and Thailand.
Malaysia is home to an estimated 500,000 Burmese migrant workers, illegally or legally, while Thailand hosts at least 2.5 million migrant workers from Burma.
“Malaysia is not a good place for foreigner migrants, particularly migrant workers,” said Latheefa Koya, a well-know Malaysian human rights lawyer. Human rights standards for migrant workers are low, she said, and there is also a high level of xenophobia, which compounds the problem.
Malaysia needs to reform its migrant worker laws, which now allow systematic abuse of migrant workers, she said.
This story was written under a 2009 Southeast Asian Press Alliance Fellowship