International Pressure Mounts on Malaysia to Halt Deportation of Myanmar Nationals

Rights groups urge Malaysia to grant Myanmar nationals present in the country access to the UN refugee agency, saying they may be in danger if sent back to their military-ruled homeland.

The international community and local groups on Monday piled pressure on Malaysia to halt the imminent deportation of 1,200 Myanmar nationals to their home country weeks after a military coup there.

On the eve of the scheduled mass expulsion aboard Myanmar navy ships, Amnesty International and a Malaysian refugee rights group jointly petitioned the High Court to stop the process, saying the deportation would put people’s lives in danger.

The United States, meanwhile, urged Malaysia’s government to allow the Myanmar nationals access to UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency.

“Amnesty International Malaysia and Asylum Access Malaysia today jointly filed for a judicial review in the Kuala Lumpur High Court to stop the government’s planned deportation of 1,200 individuals back to Myanmar in cooperation with the Myanmar military,” the two groups said in a joint statement.

Malaysia’s assurance last week that no refugees are being sent back is untrue, according to the groups. People who have been registered as refugees with UNHCR as well as more than a dozen minors who would be separated from a parent are among the 1,200 people slated for deportation on Tuesday, Amnesty and Asylum Access said.

“The judicial review aims to obtain a court order to prevent the deportation, and includes the names and details of three UNHCR document holders and 17 minors who have at least one parent still in Malaysia. This information dispels the assurance given by immigration authorities on 15 February that no refugees are among the 1,200 being sent back,” they said.

Officials with the Immigration Department did not immediately respond to requests from BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service, for comment on Monday.

Also on Monday, a spokesperson for the American embassy in Kuala Lumpur told BenarNews that it had raised concerns with the government about the people being sent back to Myanmar.

Embassy officials had urged Malaysia to give the detained Myanmar nationals access to UNHCR so that the U.N. agency could determine if any refugees or asylum seekers were among those being sent back, the spokesperson confirmed.

Last week, UNHCR said that Malaysia had denied the agency access to its immigration detention centers since August 2019.

Meanwhile, a statement issued by the Myanmar embassy in Kuala Lumpur on Saturday indicated that more deportations “on [a] humanitarian basis” were planned.

The military government in Naypyidaw gives top priority to repatriate Myanmar nationals stranded abroad due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the statement said.

“In coordination with the authorities concerned of Malaysia, the Embassy of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar states that as the first batch, a total of 1,200 Myanmar nationals from respective detention centers of Malaysia will be sent back by naval relief vessels in February 2021,” said the statement posted on Facebook. 

Minorities at risk

Last week, Malaysia’s immigration chief said that no UNHCR cardholders or ethnic Rohingya were among the 1,200 people slated for deportation.

But according to Lilianne Fan, international director of the Geutanyoe Foundation, which works with refugees, asylum seekers who belong to minorities that face state-backed discrimination in Myanmar are among the 1,200.

“Some of them [being sent back] are undocumented while some are asylum seekers and many from ethnic minorities. They are Christian Chin minorities and people from conflict-riven Kachin and Shan states,” she told BenarNews.

“Because of the Malaysian government’s move, now every asylum seeker and refugee from Myanmar is afraid that they might be deported back. And now it is dangerous for everyone.”

At least nine members of the ethnic Chin community who, like Rohingya Muslims, face state-backed discrimination in their country, were among those being sent back, the Kuala Lumpur-based Alliance of Chin Refugees told BenarNews last week.

The U.N. refugee agency said on Saturday that at least six people registered with it were among the 1,200 Myanmar nationals being deported, Reuters reported.

Sending the Myanmar nationals back only weeks after a military coup in their homeland puts them in grave danger, Katrina Jorene Maliamauv, executive director of Amnesty International Malaysia, said in a statement.

“The Myanmar military’s human rights violations against protestors and dissidents has been widely documented. If Malaysia insists on sending back the 1,200 individuals, it would be responsible for putting them at risk of further persecution, violence, and even death,” Maliamauv said.

Over the weekend, riot police in Myanmar shot dead two people and injured two dozen others during protests against the Feb. 1 military coup that toppled Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s civilian leader.

Despite Malaysia’s critical remarks on the coup in Myanmar, working with that country’s military to send back detained migrants legitimizes ongoing human rights violations by the regime, Amnesty International and Asylum Access added.

“As the world condemns the political violence in Myanmar, we are appalled to note that the Malaysian government has instead chosen to send 1,200 individuals to a rapidly deteriorating situation,” the two groups said.

The Malaysian Bar also expressed grave concern Monday about the deportation.

“[T]he act of repatriation is occurring during a period when Myanmar is faced with a tumultuous political landscape, and this violates the customary international law principle of non-refoulement – a key legal principle that prohibits the return of individuals to their home country where they would potentially face torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, or other irreparable harm,” the group said in a statement. 

“Such actions will be perceived to undermine our commitment to ratify international instruments on human rights.”

Malaysia is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention.

On Sunday, 27 Malaysian lawmakers and senators, in a joint letter, urged Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin to stop the deportation.

“We, the undersigned elected representatives and senators, jointly call for an immediate halt to the repatriation of the detained Myanmar nationals back to Myanmar, which the government has announced that it will do so by the week of 21 February 2021,” they said in their letter.

“Malaysia must lead in giving protection to these people as we cannot be the country to send them back to a military junta with a long track record of serious human rights violations.”

Malaysia’s immigration chief said last week that the Myanmar embassy in Kuala Lumpur had arranged for the repatriation of the country’s citizens, while Reuters reported that the Myanmar military had offered to send navy ships to pick them up.

Three Myanmar-flagged vessels, including a military operations ship, appeared near Malaysia’s Lumut naval base on Saturday, according to Marine Traffic, a ship-tracking website.

The Myanmar nationals will leave from the naval base, a source at the Royal Malaysian Navy told BenarNews on Monday.

Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.

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