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18 February 2021 – Malaysia

Malaysian Immigration Officers usher Detainees into a Truck after a Raid in 2018, (Getty Images,
Malaysian Immigration Officers usher Detainees into a Truck after a Raid in 2018, (Getty Images, "Malaysia sticks to deporting Myanmar detainees despite UN pressure," Nikkei Asia, 17 February 2021,

Despite strong criticism from civil society organisations and the UN, Malaysian authorities are preparing to deport 1,200 people to Myanmar on 23 February even as the crisis in Myanmar spurred by the recent military coup there continues to deepen. Observers are particularly concerned that refugees and asylum seekers will be amongst those deported by Malaysia.

Deportees are due to be returned by military vessels, provided by Myanmar’s navy. Although Malaysia claims that the deportees are not refugees or asylum seekers, organisations such as Amnesty International have questioned the validity of such statements. They point to the fact that Malaysia has denied UNHCR access to immigration detention centres to identify asylum seekers and refugees since August 2019. “UNHCR must immediately have full access to the 1,200 people,” said the Executive Director of Amnesty International Malaysia in a statement on 18 February. “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.”

Several refugee support organisations, including Myanmar Muslim Refugee Community and Alliance of Chin Refugees, have also confirmed that they have been contacted by members of the refugee groups they represent who are facing deportation, and claim that nearly 100 asylum seekers–including women and children–are amongst the group due to be deported. As of 18 February, UNHCR had yet to verify this claim.

Malaysia has faced condemnation for its roundups and detention of migrants during the COVID-19 pandemic (see 3 May Malaysia update on this platform), with reports indicating that many non-nationals are reluctant to come forwards for COVID-19 testing or treatment out of fear that they too will be arrested and detained (see 25 November Malaysia update). On 17 February, however, the minister responsible for immunisation coordination (Khairy Jamaluddin, Minister for Science and Technology) claimed that undocumented migrants would not be arrested if they presented themselves for vaccination. In a press briefing, the minister said, “We will work with civil society organisations to assist us in reaching out to undocumented foreigners with the assurance that they will not be detained. They can come forward freely.”

Despite the minister’s statement, a former deputy defence minister – Liew Chin Tong – believes that undocumented migrants and refugees will refuse to come forwards to receive the vaccine unless they receive stronger assurances from the immigration department and police themselves. He said: “It’s important that everyone is vaccinated, particularly those in high-risk groups such as migrant workers and refugees. But I don’t think the illegal migrants will come out for it. They will not trust Khairy’s words until and unless there is a rethink on the part of the Immigration Department, the police and all other security agencies.”

The country’s DAP Socialist Youth party has also questioned whether such promises will reassure non-nationals. The party’s deputy chairman argues that verbal promises from a minister unconnected to immigration will fail to reassure migrants and refugees, and instead urged the government to conduct a legalisation programme for undocumented foreigners parallel to its vaccination programme. “Some employers and migrant workers might be worried that the government might talk the talk but not walk the walk due to uncoordinated government responses,” he said.