People in Myanmar’s troubled western state are battling a surge in coronavirus in the midst of escalating conflict.
Rights groups are urging the Malaysian government to halt plans to send more than 1,000 Myanmar people currently in immigration detention back to Myanmar despite the political turmoil triggered by the military coup on February 1.
Malaysia said this week that it had accepted Myanmar’s offer to send the navy to bring back 1,200 people who are currently held in its detention centres.
ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) said the government should “immediately suspend” the planned repatriation, saying it was “abhorrent” that Malaysia was willing to allow the people to be returned.
Malaysia’s immigration chief, Khairul Dzaimee Daud, says the group includes people with “invalid documents” or who have overstayed their permits, and could leave Malaysia for Myanmar on board three navy ships as early as February 23.
The government has said that no Rohingya refugees will be deported.
However, UNHCR’s Malaysia office has been unable to enter immigration detention centres since August 2019 to verify whether people are in need of its protection. People from Myanmar currently make up more than 85 percent of all refugees in Malaysia.
Amnesty International Malaysia said it was “aghast” at the plan.
“The Malaysian immigration authorities claim their ‘repatriation program’ does not involve refugees or asylum seekers, but how have they determined this if the UN has been prevented from accessing people in immigration detention for over one and a half years?” asked Amnesty International Malaysia’s Executive Director Katrina Jorene Maliamauv.
“The Malaysian government is recklessly imperilling the lives of over 1,000 Myanmar people by deporting them under a curtain of secrecy to a country in the middle of a coup marred by human rights violations.”
Describing Malaysia’s plan to cooperate with the generals who seized power in Myanmar this month as “utterly abhorrent”, Chamnan Chanruang, a member of APHR and former member of Thailand’s parliament, said many of the deportees could be refugees and asylum seekers who would be put back “into the hands” of the very military that had prompted them to flee their country.
He urged Malaysian authorities to immediately grant access to the UN refugee agency to verify the identities and status of those in immigration detention centres, and ensure “that nobody requiring international protection is returned to Myanmar.”
Malaysia ‘pandering’ to coup leaders
There were nearly 180,000 refugees registered with UNHCR in Malaysia at the end of December. Thousands more are awaiting registration.
Rohingya, who are mostly Muslim, make up the largest group of refugees, but Malaysia is also home to other ethnic minorities, including the Chin whose state in the far west has been affected by the conflict in the neighbouring state of Rakhine.
Malaysia is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention and does not have a legal framework to protect refugees, leaving refugees and asylum seekers vulnerable to detention as undocumented migrants.
“It is therefore believed that there may nevertheless be refugees and asylum seekers among those scheduled to be deported who were arrested in mass immigration raids by Malaysian authorities last year,” APHR said.
The group warned the deportees could face persecution on their return.
Myanmar’s military seized power nearly three weeks ago, claiming there had been electoral fraud during parliamentary elections last November.
It has detained the country’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and other politicians and activists, sparking nationwide protests.
Instead of “pandering” to the Myanmar military coup leaders and putting more lives at risk, Malaysia should instead work with its ASEAN neighbours to help protect the lives of the Myanmar people protesting against the coup, said Teddy Baguilat, an APHR board member and a former congressman in the Philippines.
“The coup is threatening the lives of all vulnerable communities. There is no doubt that the risk of further discrimination and violence against ethnic and religious minorities, including the Rohingya, is high. We know what the Myanmar military is capable of in terms of human rights abuses,” Baguilat said.
Malaysia’s Lawyers for Liberty also urged the government to “at the very least” delay the deportation process “until and unless it can provide” the UN access to the 1,200 deportees “to ensure that they are indeed merely economic migrants and not vulnerable or oppressed peoples”.
The group said that if the government fails to do so, it may “unknowingly violate” the principle of non-refoulement, a provision in international human rights law that prohibits the return of individuals to a country where they would face torture, punishment and other irreparable harm.
The group also said such an action would “legitimise” the military power grab in Myanmar, after Malaysia’s stance criticising the coup.