In the face of mounting international outrage, on 23 February Malaysian authorities proceeded with the deportation of 1,086 people to Myanmar, who included suspected refugees as well as many children (see the 18 February update below for additional details). The deportations took place as the COVID-19 pandemic has severely hurt the job prospects of migrants in Malaysia, effectively turning many documented workers into undocumented ones and potentially subject to immigration enforcement measures.
The mass deportation to Myanmar was in defiance of a court order to delay the move until a judicial review could be completed, a legal move that had been initiated by the Malaysian chapters of Amnesty International and Asylum Access, who provided evidence of refugees and asylum seekers being among the group. The deportation was carried out without assessing the people’s claims for asylum, or allowing the UN High Commissioner for Refugees access to the people while in detention before their deportation. Human Right Watch’s Asia Advisor commented: “Malaysia’s immigration authorities have shown a blatant disregard both for the basic rights of Myanmar nationals and an order by the Malaysian High Court. The immigration director-general has put lives at risk by sending people back to a country now ruled again by a military that has a long track record of punishing people for political dissent or their ethnicity.”
The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights also condemned the deportations, saying: “The Malaysian authorities in defiance of the court order breached the principle of non-refoulement, a rule of jus cogens, which absolutely prohibits the collective deportation of migrants without an objective risk assessment being conducted in each individual case. Children should not have been separated from their family, or returned without determining that their return is in their best interests.”
Responding to the concerns about the identity and status of the deportees, the Malaysian director-general of immigration claimed that none of the deportees were Rohingya refugees or asylum seekers. However, on 22 February the UN refugee agency claimed that at least up to six of the people to be deported were registered refugees, and 17 were children with at least one parent in Malaysia. Various refugee rights groups had also contended that approximately one hundred Muslim and Chin refugees were among the group initially slated for deportation. These refugees may have been among the group that were not ultimately deported, though Amnesty International reported as of 24 February that the identities of these people remained unclear. The High Court of Kuala Lumpur ruled on 24 February that they should not be sent back to Myanmar, extending the stay order until 9 March 2021.
The government claimed that all deportees voluntarily agreed to their return. However, it was unclear how many people in fact agreed, and under what conditions. There are concerns that many of the deportees may not have been informed about the political volatility in the country after the coup due to limited information being available during detention.
- A. Chew, “Fled Civil War in Myanmar, Lost Job to Coronavirus and Died in Malaysia: Young Mother’s Suicide Highlights Refugees’ Plight,” South China Morning Post, 24 February 2021, https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/politics/article/3122990/fled-civil-war-myanmar-lost-job-coronavirus-and-died-malaysia
- A. Ananthalakshmi and R. Latiff, “Defying Court Order, Malaysia Deports more than 1,000 Myanmar Nationals,” Reuters, 23 February 2021, https://www.reuters.com/article/uk-myanmar-politics-malaysia-idUKKBN2AN0A3
- A. Ananthalakshmi and R. Latiff, “Rights Groups Seek Malaysian Court Order to Stop Deportation of Myanmar Detainees,” Reuters, 22 February 2021, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-myanmar-politics-malaysia/rights-groups-seek-malaysian-court-order-to-stop-deportation-of-myanmar-detainees-idUSKBN2AM1D3
- Amnesty International, “High Court Orders Government to Halt Deportation of Remaining 114 Myanmar Nationals,” 24 February 2021, https://www.amnesty.my/2021/02/24/high-court-orders-government-to-halt-deportation-of-remaining-114-myanmar-nationals/
- Amnesty International Malaysia and Asylum Access Malaysia, “Joint Press Conference on the 23rd February Deportation of Myanmar Nationals,” 24 February 2021, https://www.facebook.com/watch/live/?v=475798673423631&ref=watch_permalink
- BBC, “Malaysia Deports Myanmar Nationals Despite Court Order,” 24 February 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-56178270
- France24, “Malaysia under Fire after Controversial Myanmar Deportation,” 24 February 2021, https://www.france24.com/en/live-news/20210224-malaysia-under-fire-after-controversial-myanmar-deportation
- Human Rights Watch, “Malaysia: Investigate Return of 1,086 Myanmar Nationals,” 24 February 2021, https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/02/24/malaysia-investigate-return-1086-myanmar-nationals
- Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), “Malaysia: UN Experts Appalled by Deportation of Migrants to Myanmar Despite Court Order,” 24 February 2021, https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=26790&LangID=E
- Twitter (Amnesty International Malaysia @AmnestyMy), 24 February 2021, https://twitter.com/AmnestyMy/status/1364524682125402119
- An immigration truck believed to be carrying Myanmar migrants from Malaysia back to their homeland (Getty Images, “Malaysia Deports Myanmar Nationals Despite Court Order,” BBC, 24 February 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-56178270)