Being Detained in Kuala Lumpur
Updated: Mar 8
When you land in Kuala Lumpur Airport they play a song over the plane loudspeakers called "Visit Truly Asia Malaysia". An excerpt: Now the time has come to visit Malaysia... Feel our love, rhythm and dance in joy and delight. Sounds lovely, and I'm sure Malaysia itself is a wonderful place, but I did not get to experience it. Little did I expect that the next 48 hours would be a waking nightmare where I would be held by airport staff in terrible conditions with many other detainees from around the world.
I landed in Kuala Lumpur at 1:45pm and was excited for a 5 day trip to see Petronas Towers and the KL Eco Park, as part of a 2 month trip around Europe, Asia and later what was supposed to be Japan and New Zealand. I got in line at Passport Control just as I normally do and presented my passport. The woman thumbed through it, checking my stamps from various countries and stopped on a page which had 2 novelty stamps from Machu Picchu. She laughed and called another woman over who also laughed and then signaled a uniformed officer to come over. He said, "You can't have this here. This is an official document, not a toy". I apologized and explained that my guide had stamped it at Machu Picchu and that this is not uncommon. I do understand now this can legally render my passport invalid even though most other countries do not enforce this and I won't make this mistake again, but it still does not justify what occurred next.
The officer walked me to a small office right next to Passport Control with 3 rows of seats- mostly filled- and gave me a slip of paper and my passport. I walked in, unsure what to do next and went up to the counter where a few officers were sitting. I handed the officer in front of me the slip of paper and my passport and he laughed and called over another man. Together they rolled their eyes and pointed and laughed at my passport, showing it to others in the office. Then he said to me "This is not a real stamp. I can't accept this. I'm sending you back." I was really surprised at this and said, "Are you serious?" This seemed to anger the man. He flashed angrily and said, "This is very serious. Sit down" and pointed to the chairs. I asked if I could call someone else to ask them, thinking of a US representative, but I did not specifically ask to speak to a US representative at this time. He told me there is no one to call, that he already had showed his superior, and ordered me angrily to sit down. At this point I assumed it would be fairly simple- they would put me on the next flight back to Ho Chi Minh City where I had departed from and I could regroup and continue my travels. In retrospect, I should have asked to book myself a flight back or speak to more specifically ask for the US embassy, but unaware what would happen next I sat down figuring I would have another opportunity to talk with them shortly or be informed about what would happen next.
There was no wifi in the room and I was not using a SIM card, so I sat about 2 hours without letting anyone outside know I was there. The immigration officers did not speak to me and seemed to have a very informal process in which they collected everyone's passports and at random intervals spoke to people. At one point they ceased talking to anyone for about an hour and I saw they were watching YouTube type videos and playing games on their phones. In the room were about 20 other people. We all looked at each other confused. It was unclear if anyone else spoke English. Mostly people seemed to be of varied Asian, Indian and Middle Eastern descent. After another hour or so one of the male officers started yelling at other travelers who were texting on their phones that no phones were allowed and to go outside to use them. I had been unaware if I could leave the room so I asked to use the bathroom (I'd had to pee since I arrived) and when I was outside in the hallway I texted my mom and a couple friends to let them know I was being held for a couple hours and would be sent back to Vietnam most likely.
After this I went to sit back down. In the next hour or so I observed the officers interacting with the people they called up. They were asking about boarding passes, money, flights home. One woman did not speak either Malay or English and they took her passport and waved her away when she could not answer their questions. They visibly mocked and made fun of her. I spoke with a man from Indonesia who told me they are strict and were giving him a hard time because he booked a bus out of Malaysia and they wanted him to book a flight instead. He booked a flight and they let him leave. Many people came in and out of the office.
One young man came out of a door at the rear of the room in handcuffs with two officers escorting him. Seeing him made me a bit nervous. A couple times large groups of people came in and out of the same door in the back of the room- I would later realize they were groups of people who had been detained and were being sent home, as I would become one of those people. 4 hours later around 6pm a door at the back of the room opened and they started calling several names including mine. I walked into the back room and was immediately filled with fear. In the room were 5 or 6 officers at desks and standing, smoking. They had one man, of Middle Eastern descent, handcuffed and were making him remove his belt. I watched as they went through the man's phone and saw he had taken a photo of the room we were in. When they saw this they yelled at him and slapped him twice in the face.
At the back of this room in which we were seated a sign read "Holding Area" on the wall and there were two large locked cells that led out beyond our view. Inside I could see men walking around barefoot on the dirty concrete and urinating. I was very scared. The man who they had slapped was put into the cell and locked inside with another 15 or so men. They had us sit in two rows of chairs in the room. Another young Indonesian man attempted to comfort me as I was visibly afraid and starting to tear up. They called my name and told me I needed to turn in my cell phone and backpack. "I need to know what's happening first," I said, "Can I call someone?". They said I was being sent back to Ho Chi Minh City but there were no more flights today and that I would go back in the morning. They said I could not make any calls. They made me sign a receipt that they had my phone and took my belongings. At this point I became a bit distraught and started to cry. I asked where we would be staying and the officer said, "a waiting area." I wasnt sure if they meant a cell or somewhere else. They told me to keep my money with me so I took it out. At the last second I requested a jacket from my backpack as I realized I might want it. They let me get my jacket. They had the 7 other people turn in their belongings and then walked us out.
We were led down a hallway and past a bathroom, where we were allowed to stop, and then into separate male and female rooms which were labeled "Foreign Workers". I wonder now if this this was to make anyone from the outside who might see these rooms think that is why we were all there, as opposed to being detained. The rooms were mid sized containing only hard metal rows of chairs (as seen below) and a trash can. In the women's room were about 13 other women of varying ages (I would later learn of Chinese, Bangladeshi, Indonesian and Vietnamese descent primarily). The floor was very dirty and right away I noticed there were lots of cockroaches everywhere. Some of the women had moved the chairs across from each other so they could attempt to lay across them. Later we would sometimes find cockroaches in our hair or crawling on us while we sat or slept.
The men were crowded into their room and the hallway outside the waiting areas. I could guess there were maybe 50 plus men when I first arrived. I could see men crammed together sleeping on the dirty floor. I sat and waited and attempted to talk to a couple of the other women but at that time no one else spoke English. I was initially a little intimidated by the other women, but very quickly it became clear we were all equally shocked about why we were being detained and we started to work together. Women helped each other to translate, to try to get menstruation supplies for some women who were having their period, and to share what little resources we had. We also cared for each other emotionally, be it through conversation or just a kind look.
I was relieved when an hour later they brought us food and a bottle of water, as I was unsure if we would even get water while we waited. After this the time just unfolded hour by hour. We were given a container of food every 6 hours. Always rice or noodles and an egg or piece of chicken and a bottle of water. The food was ok. Often I skipped my meals as I felt very sick and not hungry at all most of the time. I had a very bad headache and was nauseous, probably mostly from stress. After a few hours my body began to hurt from the hard chairs, especially when I attempted to lay down. We were all very sore, especially the older women. I stayed in this room for approximately 38 hours. Many women came in including an elderly woman from Afghanistan who was obviously in physical pain and a young mother from Cambodia with 2 infants. They did seem to move the woman with children through more quickly or perhaps to another area as she was only there one night. About 4 times a day the immigration officers would come in and called out a name or several names of the people who got to leave. Sometimes we would attempt to ask about our cases but the immigration officers would become angry and sometimes hit people if they were annoyed. I saw them slap a man for this reason. But other people told me they observed an officer punch a man in the stomach and one woman described she had been slapped repeatedly. Many people had seen men being slapped.
The following morning when I had been told I was supposed to leave came and went. Then night came and went. Around the clock we were guarded by security officers from AirAsia and private security. The night officers seemed more permissive and sometimes even kind, allowing us to stand or even sit in the hallway to get a break from the uncomfortable room and to use the restroom more than one at a time. But the daytime guards were very unkind, often yelling at us for no reason. I attempted to ask them about my case a couple times but they generally shooed me and others away or told me they have no information and we have to ask the Immigration Officers- the ones who had sometimes slapped people for bothering them. To be fair, there were situations where they offered information when asked. For example a man from Lebanon told me he was able to get information that he was in process to be sent back to Vietnam. I was mostly afraid to talk to anyone and worried about what could happen if I was seemed bothersome, so my attempts were very limited.
So mostly we just waited and tried to stay at all comfortable, perhaps sleep a little. They kept the lights on all day and night. The room was very cold. I had a fleece jacket on and was shivering heavily. Some women were wearing only light dresses. People tried to share clothes to stay warm. We eventually discovered we could fill our water bottles with hot water from a water machine outside the bathroom and we used these bottles to put under our shirts to stay warm.
We were allowed to use the bathroom whenever we wanted, two people at a time. There were 8 available stalls. Fortunately, the bathrooms which connected to the rest of the airport were very clean. It was actually the nicest place to be and I sometimes went in there just to get a break. After about 6 hours two 20ish year old women from Ghana came and for the first time I was able to speak in English with someone. They were there because they had been flying home from China and didn't realize they needed transit visas to change airports from KLIA1 to KLIA2 to catch their connecting flights. They were also being sent back to China for this reason and were concerned because their fathers were waiting for them at the airport in Ghana and they were not allowed to call them. They were also not allowed to cancel the flight and were upset they would not be able to afford to fly again to Ghana. One Chinese young woman who came and spoke English also came and told me that all 11 Chinese women who were there (they were not together) had been denied entry because, though they had cash apps and credit cards they did not have enough actual cash on hand and this was the reason they were all being sent home. One woman even had come with her boyfriend who was holding their money and they had separated her from him and then denied her entry because she did not personally have her money. They were told that due to Coronavirus there were less flights so they might be detained longer: 3-4 days minimum. Every story I heard was similar. No one had actually done anything wrong- perhaps a small error, but here we were being held with no rights as prisoners. We all just kept saying to each other that it was like a nightmare. We hated the guards for being so cruel. We all just wanted to go home.
The night before I was able to leave a woman from Australia came. She has been living in Kuala Lumpur with her husband on a marriage visa and had had a travel visa to go to Phuket. She stated she was supposed to be gone 7-10 days per the visa but was gone only 4 so when she arrived she was denied entry and banned from Kuala Lumpur for 30 days. She was able to buy her own flight for $2000 to Australia so she would not be detained as long and wouldn't have to go to Phuket when she wanted to go home instead. Others told us that when they asked to buy their own tickets they were told they were not allowed. The rules and procedures seemed to be like that- based entirely on the officer's whim and temperament at the moment. There also seemed to be some amount of discrimination at play around who was chosen to be detained as most of the women of lower to mid economic status it appeared. There was some speculation that perhaps they were targeting Chinese people due to fears of Coronavirus or that due to recent political unrest they needed to bolster detainee numbers.
Some of the women attempted to hide in the bathroom and when outside flight passengers came to use them they would ask to use their WhatsApp or WeChat to get messages to family. Some people were able to do this. We also shared contact information between us so that if we were released before one another we could contact each other's family to let them know where we were. I was fortunately able to contact the families of the women from Ghana after I was released so they could know why their daughters had vanished. When the woman from Australia came she was outraged that "people from the West" could be treated this way. I must admit that while I didn't agree with this sentiment specifically the way it was stated, and perhaps she did not mean it as it came across- obviously no one should be treated this way period- I had had a similar reaction of surpise and more of disbelief that they would treat an American in such a manner, mostly just because the US is so powerful. I don't feel I deserve better due to my Americanness but have often had a lot of privilege in this way and have almost always been given very good treatment while traveling as a White woman from America. It was shocking to be held in a foreign country like this. I was upset with myself that I had not tried to ask from specific help from the US embassy when the situation started and used this to my advantage or to help others.
The second night I was there I asked the guards if there was a US Consulate in the airport or in KL and was told, "No, we dont have it." Later that night when the Australian woman came she was more assertive and she demanded to speak to someone from her embassy and asked from someone from the American embassy for me. She had just arrived and I was surprised at her boldness and curious how it would unfold. The guards told her they cannot call the embassy. They informed us that we could ask Immigration about calling the embassy, but then added, "All you people being held could be in prison. You're lucky to be here. If you go to immigration and bother them with this you could go to prison." That shut her up and we slinked away and just hoped for the best.
About 46 hours after I had landed they came in and called my name. Several women who had come in with me and one before me were still left there. I went with a group of people and were taken to get our phones and belongings and then walked to the gate. They gave my passport to the flight crew and I was told I could get it in Vietnam after I landed. And that my checked bag would be there also. I was just so relieved to get my phone back and be able to contact my family and friends who were extremely worried. It turns out they had tried to call the airport and been told that I was being sent home, then being sent to Vietnam, and then just weren't able to get through anymore. They had also contacted the embassy who had tried to find me but was told I was not in the holding area (unclear if this was after I had been released to my flight or not). I was just overjoyed to be out. I had been terrified they could hold me for any length of time and there would be nothing I could do or that they really could do anything to me without anyone knowing. There seemed to be no oversight or concern for legality at the standards I am used to.
In Vietnam I was given my passport back but told by Vietnamese Immigration that they had been contacted by Kuala Lumpur Immigration and told my passport was damaged and I was to buy a ticket home. The officer in Vietnam didn't seem to understand why this would happen when I showed them the stamps from Machu Picchu. They informed I could not continue on my trip to Osaka. They were very kind however and warm. While I had another month of travel booked I was fine to just cut my losses and go home exhausted from the ordeal. What I experienced and what many many people are continuing to experience is a total violation of human decency and rights. To be held without information, without ability to contact the outside world, without basic needs for warmth and for beds met, and with fear of violence or retribution is totally unacceptable for anyone, especially without having committed any crime.
Now I am just incredibly glad to be home, grateful for my freedom, and counting myself lucky that things were not worse than they were at that I was released relatively quickly. The experience was shocking for me and eye opening about everything I take for granted. I wanted to write something to share my story, warn others, and speak out against this injustice.
What I learned:
Never get a novelty stamp in your real passport! You can use an old passport or a notebook if you'd like to collect these.
Research where you're traveling! I am realizing now I had taken for granted that if a place was nice seeming it would be totally fine to travel there without further thought. I didn't even realize there had been a recent political upheaval in Malaysia because I didn't do my research- a factor which some folks suggested could have impacted my experience. Additionally, many of the people I met were held for things that were slight oversights amd.could have been avoided with more research. Realizing you could need a transit visit, for example, would eliminate that as an excuse to detain or deny entry to you.
Take travel safety seriously! I have been laissez faire about safety at times because I never had a problem. From now on I'll make better attempts to know my rights, make sure my family knows my exact itinerary, etc.
I also will not ever travel to or even through Kuala Lumpur Airport again and would urge my friends and family to skip it as well. Even if you think you've not made any errors they seem to find excuses to deny entry to and detain folks. Not worth it.