Malaysia expelled more than 1,000 Myanmar nationals on Tuesday despite a court order halting the mass deportation aboard Myanmar navy ships, after rights groups said that some could face persecution back in their home country.
The 1,086 who were sent back to Myanmar went voluntarily and did not include refugees or asylum-seekers, Malaysian immigration officials said. Last week, United Nations refugee agency UNHCR and other groups said that registered refugees were among those being deported, and there possibly were many asylum seekers too whom it had not been able to access since August 2019.
“The Immigration Department with the cooperation from the Armed Forces especially the Royal Malaysian Navy, the National Task Force and the Myanmar Embassy has executed the deportation of 1,086 illegals from Myanmar today,” Khairul Dzaimee bin Daud, director general of the Immigration Department of Malaysia, said in a statement.
“The immigration department would like to stress that all sent home are illegals and no ethnic Rohingya or asylum seekers were among those deported. All of those returned had agreed to be sent back voluntarily without being forced by any party.”
Daud did not explain why the number of people deported was lower than the 1,200 he announced last week. He said all those sent back had been held at the immigration depot since 2020 and were deported home via the navy base in Lumut, in Perak state, using three Myanmar navy ships.
Sources in the Royal Malaysia Navy confirmed to BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service, that the deportees were transferred to the three Myanmar vessels – a navy frigate, a multipurpose support ship, and a hospital ship – which sailed from local waters at 6 p.m. Tuesday (local time).
Officials with the Immigration Department did not immediately respond to requests from BenarNews for comment on Tuesday.
Court halts deportation
Hours earlier, the Kuala Lumpur High Court temporarily halted the deportation, based on a petition filed on Monday.
Amnesty International and Access Asylum Malaysia, a local refugee rights group, had petitioned the High Court jointly to stop the mass expulsion of people from Myanmar.
The deportation would endanger people and legitimize ongoing human rights violations by the Myanmar military that toppled Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s civilian leader, in a coup on Feb. 1, the groups said.
The Kuala Lumpur office of UNHCR did not issue a statement on Tuesday in response to the deportation. But representatives from the U.N. agency told the country’s human resources minister on Tuesday that more than 20,000 migrants in Malaysia were yet to be registered with it, according to a statement from the ministry.
Amnesty and Access Asylum had said there were at least three UNHCR-registered refugees among those being sent back to Myanmar. The court order included the names of those three.
UNHCR last week had said that at least six people registered with the U.N. were among those being deported.
Also last week, the Kuala Lumpur-based Alliance of Chin Refugees told BenarNews that at least nine asylum-seekers of the ethnic Chin community were among the people being deported. Like Rohingya Muslims, member of the Chin community face state-backed discrimination in Myanmar.
And a group that represents non-Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar had said that asylum seekers were also among those slated for deportation on Feb. 23.
The Chin group had said its members who were being sent back lacked UNHCR documents because the U.N. agency had not yet interviewed them to determine if they were refugees or asylum seekers.
As of the end of 2020, some 178,610 refugees and asylum-seekers were registered with UNHCR in Malaysia, and most had come from conflict-ridden areas in Myanmar or fled persecution there, according to the agency.
Malaysia is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, but, according to UNHCR, the non-refoulement principle applies to the country as part of customary international law, which is binding on all states.
Malaysian government ‘potentially in contempt of court’
The Malaysian government may be in contempt of court for ignoring the judicial order suspending the deportation of the Myanmar nationals, said Amnesty International and the Malaysian Bar.
“The Bar Council’s position is that the action taken by government to deport 1,086 Myanmar nationals is tantamount to contempt of the stay order granted by court this afternoon,” M. Ramachelvam, chair of the bar council’s Committee on Migrants, Refugees and Immigration Affairs, told BenarNews.
The immigration department would have been aware that court proceedings were planned on Tuesday on the deportation issue, he said.
In fact, the court order document seen by BenarNews showed a signature on behalf of the Attorney General’s Chambers, with the instruction that the deportation be suspended at least until a hearing on Wednesday, Feb. 24.
“Tomorrow’s court hearing, which will still go ahead, must reveal answers about what has occurred,” Amnesty International said in a statement after the deportation.
“An event like today’s deportation – undertaken in secrecy, and without access for the U.N. to vulnerable people – must never be allowed to happen again. We call on Malaysian authorities to respect its obligations under international human rights law, to ensure safe and voluntary repatriation, with access to UNHCR to assess those being deported.”
Responding to the immigration chief’s comment that the Myanmar nationals went back voluntarily, Amnesty International said the migrants had no choice.
“Authorities insist those deported agreed to return voluntarily – but the options for people and their families were between indefinite detention or returning to an extremely volatile situation amid a coup,” the rights group said.
“Using indirect means to push people back to face grave human rights violations is essentially constructive refoulement.”
Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.
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