Malaysia plans to deport asylum-seekers among the 1,200 Myanmar nationals it is sending home next week, a refugee group told BenarNews on Thursday, while rights groups expressed shock at a move they said would endanger lives after the military coup.
Among those who will be deported are at least nine members of the ethnic Chin community who, like Rohingya Muslims, face state-backed discrimination in their country, said James Bawi Thang Bik, of the Kuala Lumpur-based Alliance of Chin Refugees.
“We have nine people [who want asylum] from my community and they are from the conflict zone in our country,” Thang Bik said late Thursday, referring to the Chin and Rakhine states, where Myanmar’s army and Arakan Army rebels have been involved in deadly clashes since November 2018.
“Our people who are going to be deported to Myanmar, they do not have UNHCR documents because they have not yet been interviewed by UNHCR to determine that they are refugees or asylum seekers. They were detained while waiting for UNHCR. So it is really important to let UNHCR meet them for their status determination.”
Malaysia’s immigration chief said earlier this week that no refugees registered with the United Nations or from Myanmar’s Rohingya minority would be among the deported.
But according to UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, its representatives since August 2019 had not been able to meet those detained to see if they qualify for international protection, because Malaysia had denied it access to immigration detention centers.
The Alliance of Chin Refugees sends the U.N. agency a list of people arrested each month from his community, and so UNHCR is aware of the cases of those seeking asylum, Thang Bik said.
“UNHCR always responds to us saying that they are not allowed by the immigration to visit the detention camps since August 2019, so they can’t do anything. That’s what they always respond to us,” he said.
The U.N. agency confirmed these facts in a statement on Feb. 12.
“UNHCR has not received approval from immigration authorities to access immigration detention centers since August 2019, despite continuous advocacy from UNHCR and others on this matter,” said Yante Ismail, UNHCR spokesperson in Kuala Lumpur.
“This has unfortunately prevented UNHCR from seeing those detained in order to verify their refugee status, and to determine if they are in need of international protection.”
Ismail said she was aware of reports that 1,200 Myanmar nationals were being sent back home from Malaysia, but was trying to get more information from the Malaysian authorities.
“However, we are concerned that there remains in detention in Malaysia a number of people who may be in need of international protection, including vulnerable women and children, whose refugee status has not yet been verified,” she said.
Malaysia is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention.
Malaysia’s action ‘utterly abhorrent’
In related developments, a group of Muslim detainees from Myanmar told the Reuters news agency that 85 of them were among those scheduled to be sent home on Feb. 23.
“They don’t want to go back to Myanmar,” Thu Zar Moung, founder and chairwoman of the Myanmar Muslim Refugee Community, a group that represents non-Rohingya Muslims, told the news agency on Thursday.
“Even during the trip from Malaysia to Myanmar, their lives can be threatened and [it is] dangerous,” she said without being more specific.
Meanwhile, Malaysia’s immigration chief confirmed that the Myanmar embassy in Kuala Lumpur had arranged for the repatriation of the country’s citizens, Reuters reported last week.
Malaysia had agreed to return the 1,200 Myanmar citizens after that country’s military, which engineered the Feb. 1 coup, offered to send navy ships to pick them up, Reuters said.
These twin actions of Malaysia’s – working with Myanmar’s military to deport the country’s nationals in the wake of a coup – have shocked rights group Amnesty International and a group of Southeast Asian parliamentarians.
“It is utterly abhorrent that Malaysia is cooperating with the Myanmar junta that has illegally seized power, and even more so to return Myanmar nationals to a situation of danger and unrest,” said Chamnan Chanruang, a member of the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR), in a statement on Thursday.
“Many of them could be refugees and 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.”
The Myanmar military, which has ruled the Southeast Asian country for most of the 73 years since its independence from British rule, is said to have committed serious human rights violations against ethnic minorities, according to Human Rights Watch, the U.N. and other international observers.
Thousands of these minorities – the Rohingya, the Karen, the Karenni, the Chin, the Kachin, the Shan, and the Mon – have over the decades fled state-backed persecution in Myanmar.
“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,” said Teddy Baguilat of APHR.
A widespread crackdown on dissidents after the military coup in Myanmar puts those due to be deported at further risk of human rights violations, said Amnesty International.
“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 the watchdog group’s Malaysia office, said in a statement on Thursday.
“The Malaysian Immigration authorities claim their ‘repatriation program’ does not involve refugees or asylum seekers, but how have they determined this if the U.N. has been prevented from accessing people in immigration detention for over one and a half years?”
In his statement on Monday, Malaysia’s immigration chief did not touch on the issue of UNHCR being denied access to immigration detention centers since August 2019.
The return of the 1,200 Myanmar nationals is “part of the normal process of deportation of foreigners” who have no travel documents or who stay overtime of violate immigration rules, said Khairul Dzaimee bin Daud, director general of the Immigration Department of Malaysia.
“The department would like to clarify that no UNHCR cardholders or ethnic Rohingya are part of the repatriation program,” he said.
Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.