The United Nations refugee agency has appealed to countries neighbouring Myanmar to immediately cease the forced return of people who have fled the military-ruled country, describing such deportations as “placing countless lives at risk”.
People are fleeing “indiscriminate violence” against civilians, which continues across the country, and fighting between Myanmar’s military and ethnic armed groups in several border areas, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said in a statement on Thursday.
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“Myanmar nationals already abroad should not be forced to return when seeking international protection,” UNHCR Assistant High Commissioner for Protection Gillian Triggs said in the statement.
“UNHCR remains gravely concerned about multiple reports of … the forcible return of refugees and asylum seekers – since February 2021 – from countries neighbouring Myanmar,” Triggs said.
“Myanmar’s neighbours have a decades-long history of providing protection and assistance to refugees,” she said. “We call on them to continue upholding their international legal obligations and lifesaving humanitarian tradition.”
The UNHCR statement comes just days after the Reuters news agency reported that Malaysia had deported 150 Myanmar nationals this month, including former navy officers seeking asylum, despite the risk of arrest they face on being returned home.
Malaysian authorities arrested six former navy officers from Myanmar last month and deported them by plane on October 6, sources told Reuters, requesting anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.
At least one naval officer, Kyaw Hla, and his wife, Htay Htay Yee, were detained upon arrival back in Myanmar’s commercial hub Yangon, the sources told Reuters. The two were deported from Malaysia for failing to hold valid documents to live in the country, the sources told Reuters.
Reuters could not establish why they were held in Yangon.
At least three of the former Myanmar naval officers and Htay Htay Yee had sought protection from the UN refugee agency and had applied for protection documents that would identify them as refugees, according to Reuters’ sources.
Malaysia’s immigration department, the foreign ministry and prime minister’s office did not respond to requests for comment, according to Reuters.
The reported deportations come despite Malaysia’s vocal condemnation of violence in Myanmar since the military removed an elected government led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi last year.
Malaysia is home to more than 100,000 Rohingya Muslims who have fled ethnic cleansing operations by the Myanmar military. More recently, Malaysia has been deporting more people from Myanmar due to a tougher policy on refugees and migrants, Reuters reported.
The deportations highlight what critics see as a contradictory stand after unprecedented Malaysian condemnation of Myanmar’s military.
Malaysian foreign minister Saifuddin Abdullah had condemned Myanmar’s execution in July of four pro-democracy activists and had urged ASEAN countries to engage with the Myanmar opposition. The minister also called on the regional grouping to “buck up” efforts to provide humanitarian assistance and promote a Myanmar peace process.
Malaysian opposition legislator Charles Santiago said the government should stop deportations and adopt a consistent policy on Myanmar based on human rights and democracy.