PETALING JAYA: Several non-governmental organisations (NGO) have come together to urge the government to do away with the detention of all children, especially refugee and asylum-seeking children as it has a lasting psychological effect on them.
A coalition of several children's rights NGOs in Malaysia took up a United Nations call urging governments to end child detention by participating in a month-long campaign that began on Sept 25.
The campaign, called End Immigration Detention of Children, aims to educate people on child detentions and invite the public to submit 3,000 postcards on what freedom means to them. Their feedback will be handed to the relevant authorities.
A two-day event featuring skits, talks and exhibition was held at Publika Square and Publika Black Bridge in Kuala Lumpur.
Refugee children and activists fighting for the cause shared the horror of being detained at the 12 detention centers all over Malaysia, which are often overcrowded and lacking in the most basic facilities.
The coalition highlighted seven main problems at the immigration detention centers - overcrowding, lack of food and clean water, poor medical care, poor sanitation, limited number of bedding and the lack of special protection or procedure for children in the centers.
Malaysia has a large refugee and asylum seeker population, mainly from Myanmar. Official data on the number of children in immigration detention is not publicly available.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Malaysia (http://www.unhcr.org.my) as of the end of August 2013, there are some 108,336 refugees and asylum-seekers registered with UNHCR in Malaysia. There are some 25, 000 children below the age of 18.
Tenaganita programme officer Katrina Jorene Maliamauv said detainees in centers are stripped of their dignity.
"Those detained are often whipped and forced to live in abominable conditions. The effects of the detention lasts well beyond the detention centers. It is worse for children," she said in a speech.
Voices of Children chairperson Sharmila Sekaran said it was not right that children are detained although they did not commit any offence.
"Most of the time, these children are running away from something, for example the situation in Syria. These children are already at a disadvantage and putting them in detention centers is neither beneficial nor helpful," she said.
She added that many of these children are detained for three months to over a year, a long period in a child's life.
"What we are doing here is asking the government and society to look at alternatives to deal with the refugee children," she said.
According to studies, children in detention are 10 times more likely to develop psychiatric disorders and that detention for a short period of time can damage their mental health and development.
These children are more exposed to the possibility of separation anxiety, disrupted conduct, suicide attempts, loss of language, poor eating, nightmares, self-harm and mutism.
Alternative methods to child detention are already being practiced by Hong Kong and other countries.
The International Detention coalition recommended the Community Assessment and Placement model - a guideline to help governments come up with alternative methods to detention.
Those wishing to learn more about the campaign or participate can visit endchilddetention.org or visit their Facebook page at www.facebook.com/EIDCMalaysia.