Anger over Malaysia's deportation of Myanmar migrants

Immigration authorities ignore High Court's temporary stay on the controversial move

Mar 01, 2021

KUALA LUMPUR: Prominent international rights activists have called on Malaysia’s government to investigate the deportation of nearly 1,100 Myanmar nationals back to their home country despite a court order banning the move.

The country’s High Court on Feb. 23 granted a temporary stay on the planned deportation of 1,200 Myanmar nationals who have been held in immigration detention centers while a proper judicial review of their case is undertaken.

Immigration authorities ignored the court’s decision and the same day handed 1,086 of the migrants and asylum seekers over to the Myanmar navy, which had sent ships to Malaysia to transport them back home.

Rights advocates were campaigning against the forced deportation of the Myanmar migrants and asylum seekers, saying their wellbeing could be in jeopardy in a country ruled by an increasingly oppressive military regime after a coup this month.

“Malaysia’s immigration authorities have shown a blatant disregard both for the basic rights of Myanmar nationals and an order by the Malaysian High Court,” Linda Lakhdhir, Asia legal adviser for Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.

“The immigration director-general has put lives at risk by sending people back to a country now ruled again by a military that has a long track record of punishing people for political dissent or their ethnicity.” 

Several prominent Malaysian faith leaders, including the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Malaysia, have also voiced their opposition to the planned deportation of the Myanmar migrants on humanitarian grounds.

“At a time of grave political uncertainty in Myanmar, our faith tells us that we cannot remain silent and be complicit to this action towards those who have fled due to a grave humanitarian crisis,” the Malaysian bishops said in a statement on Feb. 23. 

“Guaranteeing personal security to the most vulnerable refugees, migrants and asylum seekers must not only be governed by international laws but also by the laws of humanity, which are grounded on mercy, compassion and love.”

International rights advocates say the decision by Malaysian immigration authorities to deport the 1,086 Myanmar nationals has likely violated international treaty obligations.

Although Malaysian authorities have said that no refugees such as stateless Rohingya were among those deported, they have failed to provide adequate documentation to support this claim, according to Human Rights Watch.

Local authorities have also refused to allow representatives of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to independently examine the status of the deportees to ensure there were no genuine refugees among them.  

“Given Malaysia’s prior claims that no refugee cardholders were among those scheduled for return, the Immigration Department’s assurances carry little weight,” Lakhdhir said.

“Without a full and transparent investigation into these returns and an order permitting UNHCR access to all detainees, refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia are at risk of prolonged detention and return to persecution.” 

More than 178,000 refugees are registered with the UNHCR in Malaysia, with over 86 percent of them from Myanmar. They include over 100,000 Rohingya asylum seekers in addition to more than 50,000 people fleeing the conflict-torn nation where the Myanmar army’s military offensives to suppress decades-long ethnic separatist movements have claimed countless lives.

By international law, Malaysia is obligated not to deport any persons who may face persecution, torture or other forms of serious harm in their home country, rights advocates stress.

“Given the Myanmar military’s repression of critics of the coup or the junta, as well as the military’s record of abuses against ethnic minorities, Malaysia’s failure to provide fair asylum procedures or allow UNHCR to make refugee determinations violates the government’s international legal obligations,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement on Feb. 24. ––

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