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Malaysia under fire for deporting Myanmar asylum seekers

Rights group says more than 2,000 have been forcibly repatriated since April
An immigration truck believed to be carrying Myanmar migrants from Malaysia back to their homeland, is seen heading towards a naval base in Lumut, outside Kuala Lumpur on Feb 23, 2021

An immigration truck believed to be carrying Myanmar migrants from Malaysia back to their homeland, is seen heading towards a naval base in Lumut, outside Kuala Lumpur on Feb 23, 2021. (Photo: AFP)

Published: October 24, 2022 06:24 AM GMT
Updated: October 24, 2022 06:55 AM GMT

International rights groups have demanded Malaysian authorities stop the forced return of Myanmar nationals whose lives are at most risk in the military-ruled Southeast Asian nation.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has called on the Malaysian government to immediately halt summary deportations and grant UNHCR access to asylum seekers to determine their refugee status.

The rights group said since April Malaysian immigration authorities have returned over 2,000 Myanmar nationals, including military defectors, without assessing their asylum claims or other protection needs — more than half of them in the past two months.

On Oct 6, 150 Myanmar nationals including six navy officers and their families who were seeking protection from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) were deported and the six officers were arrested upon their arrival in their homeland, according to a Reuters report.

“Sending asylum seekers back to Myanmar means putting activists, dissidents and persecuted minorities in the crosshairs of the repressive junta,” Shayna Bauchner, Asia researcher at HRW, said on Oct 24.

About 185,000 refugees and asylum seekers — the majority from Myanmar, including over 100,000 Rohingya — are registered with the UNHCR in Malaysia. At least 17,500 people are being held in 21 immigration detention centers across the country, including more than 1,500 children, according to HRW.

Amnesty International called for the Malaysian government to immediately stop all forced deportations of people from Myanmar and ensure they are given the opportunity to claim asylum.

“The government must stop forcibly deporting asylum seekers — including dissidents or any other opponents of the Myanmar military, and others facing persecution if they were to be returned,” the group said.

The organization considers forcibly deporting anyone from Myanmar under the current conditions to be refoulement — when a government deports people to a country in which they would likely face human rights violations — which contravenes international law.

The UNHCR has called on Myanmar’s neighbors to continue “upholding their international legal obligations and life-saving humanitarian tradition of safeguarding the lives of all those forced to flee.”

Rights groups see the move by Malaysia as contradicting the outspoken foreign minister, Saifuddin Abdulah, who has repeatedly called for a new approach to the five-point peace plan reached by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) in April 2021 following the lack of implementation by the junta.

Saifuddin is the only leader from Asean who has openly met with Myanmar’s opposition National Unity Government and urged other counterparts to do so.

“The deportations are especially tragic given that Malaysia has played a leading role in standing up for the human rights of the people of Myanmar and encouraging other Asean member states to engage with stakeholders as part of the bloc’s five-point consensus,” Tan Sri Syed Hamid Albar, chairman of the Malaysian Advisory Group on Myanmar, said.

The Southeast Asian nation has been mired in political, social and economic crisis following the Feb 1 2021 coup that toppled the elected civilian government after ending a nascent democracy experiment.

More than 2,300 people, including scores of children, have been killed and over 15,700 people have been detained by the junta since the coup, rights groups say.

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