Human rights groups have excoriated the Malaysian government’s planned deportation of 1,200 people back to Myanmar next week, as the latter’s military government comes under increasing international pressure following the coup of February 1.
On February 12, the government of Malaysia accepted an offer by the army to send three navy ships to repatriate 1,200 Myanmar nationals held in Malaysian immigration detention centers.
According to a report by Reuters, Myanmar, via its embassy in Kuala Lumpur, made the offer to take back its citizens held in Malaysian immigration detention shortly after the military’s seizure of power. The ships are scheduled to arrive this weekend, and to return to Myanmar on February 23.
Malaysia claims that it will not deport any refugees or asylum seekers registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). But the U.N. agency says that it has not had access to immigration detention centers in Malaysia since August 2019, and according to human rights groups, there is a good chance that the group will include asylum seekers and those qualifying for refugee status, including some arrested in mass immigration raids by Malaysian authorities last May, who could face jail or persecution upon arrival back in Myanmar.
“The Malaysian government is recklessly imperiling 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,” Katrina Jorene Maliamauv, executive director of Amnesty International Malaysia, said in a statement.
Chamnan Chanruang, a member of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights and a former Thai member of parliament, described the move as “utterly abhorrent.” He added that the groups could include legitimate asylum seekers who “will be put back into the hands of the Myanmar military who caused them to flee violence and desperation in the country in the first place.”
Malaysia has long been a destination for asylum seekers from Myanmar, particularly Muslim Rohingya who had fled Rakhine State in the country’s west. Rohingya have been casting off from the coasts in leaky boats for years, but fierce assaults by the Myanmar military in 2016 and 2017 have increased the numbers desperately seeking asylum abroad.
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.
However, Malaysia does not formally recognize refugees, regarding them instead as illegal migrants, and the authorities there have a history of mistreating refugees and asylum seekers, including Rohingya. According to the Reuters report, Myanmar has offered to take back only its citizens, implying that it would not take any Rohingya, which it views as illegal migrants from Bangladesh.
Given its timing, it’s hard not to see the offer by Myanmar as a bid for Malaysia’s support (or at least acquiescence) for its seizure of power, which has prompted international condemnations and strident domestic opposition. For its own part, Kuala Lumpur seems happy to take the opportunity to rid itself of a group of people that it views as illegal immigrants.
At the same time as it collaborates with Myanmar on the deportation, Malaysia has voiced support for an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to convene a special meeting to address the escalating crisis in Myanmar. After a meeting between Indonesian President Joko Widodo in Jakarta on February 5 and Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, both leaders agreed to instruct their foreign ministers to push forward efforts to convene an ASEAN meeting. Muhyiddin referred to the military takeover as representing “one step backward in the process of democracy in that country.”