LETTER | Malaysia must not endanger lives in Myanmar deportation

Amnesty International Malaysia


LETTER | Amnesty International Malaysia is aghast at the government’s planned efforts with the Myanmar military to deport 1,200 people back to Myanmar on Feb 23.

Mass deportation exercises carried out with little transparency contravenes Malaysia’s obligations to respect and protect the rights of migrants and refugees, and risks endangering their lives. 

A widespread crackdown on dissidents following the military coup in Myanmar on Feb 1 puts those due to be deported at further risk of human rights violations.

The immigration authorities claim that their ‘repatriation programme’ does not involve refugees or asylum seekers, but how have they determined this if the UN has been prevented from accessing people in immigration detention for over one and a half years?

The government is recklessly imperilling 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.

The Malaysian government has not permitted the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) to access immigration detention centres since August 2019.

The international body has not been able to visit detention centres to identify asylum seekers and refugees and facilitate their release, leaving them to languish in captivity. The arbitrary and indefinite detention of migrants, asylum seekers and refugees is in violation of international human rights law.

The government must ensure there is a guarantee of safety for returnees. UNHCR must immediately have full access to the 1,200 people.

Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin must instruct the immigration department to work closely with UNHCR to ensure not a single person seeking asylum, refugee or anyone who may be at risk of human rights violations is forced to return to Myanmar. To do so would be in violation of the principle of non-refoulement, which applies to Malaysia as part of customary international law.

The planned deportation once again puts Malaysia’s immigration and refugee policies in the spotlight. 

The Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) reported in 2018 that conditions in immigration detention centres continue to be cramped, unsanitary, poorly maintained, and lacking in basic facilities such as clean water and food.

There have also been first-hand and witness accounts of physical abuse against detainees. In August 2020, the government acknowledged that 23 detainees, including two children, died in immigration detention centres in the first half of that year.

In October, the government revealed that 756 children were being held in these facilities, in violation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which bars the detention of children for immigration offences.

Given horrific conditions in detention, it is not surprising that some people may feel their only option is to return to Myanmar, even if they face risks there.

But the options for people and their families cannot be between indefinite detention or putting their lives at risk by returning to a possibly dangerous situation. Using indirect means to push people back to face the grave human rights violations they escaped by crossing a border to seek safety is essentially ‘constructive’ refoulement.

Throughout 2020, immigration officials and police have conducted raids against people in migrant communities in Malaysia that have violated their rights and undermined Covid-19 preventative measures.

In addition to this, according to UNHCR, as of early December 2020, 457 persons registered with the organisation were detained in immigration detention, including 62 unaccompanied and separated children. 

The numbers of individuals unregistered but who may have an asylum claim are currently unknown to UNHCR as they’ve been denied access to detention centres since August 2019.

The situation of those in immigration detention in Malaysia is horrendous. Beyond granting UNHCR access to those due to be deported, the government must also allow it full access to all those currently in detention facilities. The detention of people solely for immigration control is unjustifiable.

We call for the immediate release of refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants detained for this reason. Refugees and asylum-seekers must be afforded additional protections, including full recognition of their right to seek international protection.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.