Malaysia’s government has deported more than 1,000 undocumented migrants to Myanmar, ignoring a court order granting a temporary stay against their return to a country that is currently simmering with nationwide protests.
The 1,086 Myanmar citizens were bused in from around the country and loaded onto three navy ships sent by Myanmar’s military, which seized power in a coup on February 1.
The plan had come under fire from human rights groups and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), while hours before the deportation a Kuala Lumpur court ordered it to be temporarily halted to allow a legal challenge.
Amnesty International Malaysia’s Executive Director, Katrina Jorene Maliamauv, described the decision to go ahead with the deportation as “inhumane and devastating” and “shockingly cruel.” Linda Lakhdhir, Asia legal advisor at Human Rights Watch, lashed at the immigration authorities’ “blatant disregard both for the basic rights of Myanmar nationals and an order by the Malaysian High Court.
She added, “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.”
On February 12, the government of Malaysia accepted an offer by Myanmar’s army to send three navy ships to repatriate 1,200 of its nationals held in Malaysian immigration detention centers. The offer came a week after the Myanmar military, or Tatmadaw, seized power in a coup, raising suspicions that the offer was a bid by the new junta to curry favor with the Malaysian government. It is unclear why only 1,086 people ended up being shipped back to Myanmar.
Amnesty International and another rights group, Asylum Access, promptly challenged the deportation in court, arguing that Malaysia would be sending vulnerable people back to a country where they could face persecution, in breach of international law, even though Malaysia is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention. Despite the court ordering the deportation to be halted pending further legal reviews, Malaysia went ahead and deported them anyway.
The Malaysian government claims that it had not sent back any Rohingya Muslims or refugees registered with UNHCR. Kairul Dzaimee Daud, director-general of Malaysia’s immigration department, said in a statement Tuesday that those sent back were all Myanmar nationals who were detained last year and did not include asylum-seekers or any refugees from the persecuted Rohingya minority.
“All of those who have been deported agreed to return of their own free will, without being forced,” Daud said.
But UNHCR has not had access to Malaysia’s immigration detention centers in Malaysia since August 2019. In their court filing, Amnesty and Asylum Access said that among the deportees were three people registered with the UNHCR and 17 minors who have at least one parent in Malaysia. After the deportation, UNHCR said that those sent back to Myanmar included at least six people registered with it.
Myanmar’s military-backed news outlet Myawaddy reported that the ships were bringing back Myanmar nationals who were not granted permission to come back under the former ruling civilian government. “We scrutinized that all of them are the citizens of our country, not Bengali,” an immigration official was quoted as saying, using a derogatory term for Rohingya, whom the Myanmar government views as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Nonetheless, rights monitors say that asylum seekers from other minority groups fleeing conflict and persecution were among those sent back to Myanmar.
Refugees and asylum seekers from Myanmar make up the majority of those registered with UNHCR in Malaysia. Of the 178,610 refugees and asylum seekers registered with the U.N. agency as of December, 154,030 are from Myanmar. This includes 102,250 Rohingyas, 22,410 Chins, and 29,360 from other ethnic groups who have fled conflict or persecution.