Media reports that Malaysia intends to deport 1,200 Myanmar nationals from Malaysian immigration detention centres back to their country with the cooperation of the Myanmar military government have raised concern.
Apparently, the Myanmar military government, fresh from its recent coup, has offered to send three navy ships to pick up only its citizens being held at Malaysian immigration centres.
The immigration detention centres hold non-Malaysians who are without proper documents. These include undocumented economic migrant workers as well as refugee and asylum seekers. Their situations are very different.
With regard to refugees and asylum seekers, various communities from Myanmar, including members of the Chin, Karen, Arakan, Kachin, Rohingya and Myanmar Muslim communities, have sought refuge from the military in Myanmar. There has been extensive documentation of sustained ethnic conflict and persecution.
The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) in Malaysia has registered about 154,000 refugee and asylum seekers from Myanmar. Many of them have been detained at these centres.
There is concern that among those who are about to be deported, there may be those who will need international protection, including refugees, asylum seekers and vulnerable women and children.
According to the Ministry of Home Affairs, 756 children were being detained in immigration centres nationwide as of October 2020, of which 405 are children who don’t have parents or guardians with them.
The uncertainty over whether refugees and asylum seekers will be deported could easily be clarified if the UNHCR is given access to the detention centres. It is unclear why the UNHCR has been banned from access to these detention centres for almost 18 months. This has prevented the identification and hence protection of refugees and asylum seekers among the detainees in these centres. The lack of transparency at the immigration detention centres is extremely worrying.
While Malaysia is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, it has a legal obligation under international human rights law to uphold the principle of non-refoulement (ie not forcing anyone to return to a country where they are liable to be persecuted) and to ensure that a range of practical and human rights-based protection mechanisms are in place.
Also of concern is the situation facing economic migrants being deported. For some it could be a case of a welcome chance to return home and rebuild a life, albeit in a country currently under emergency. But for others it could mean facing the consequences of unpaid debt incurred to secure promised jobs in Malaysia. Often these have not materialised, and this is a reason why many are in immigration detention centres through no fault of their own. What steps are being taken to ensure that this repatriation is voluntary?
Yesterday, Tom Andrews, the UN special rapporteur on the rights situation in Myanmar, speaking at a special session of the UN Human Rights Council, urged the UN and all member states to demand that the junta in Myanmar end the persecution and prosecution of the people of Myanmar for exercising their basic human rights.
Malaysia is currently bidding for a seat in the council for the 2022-2024 term, and dealing humanely with those in immigration detention centres provides an opportunity for the Malaysian government to show its respect for human rights.
Aliran calls upon the government to ensure that the non-refoulement principle is not violated, that the safety of those being deported is ensured and that the UNHCR is allowed access to immigration centres.
From a broader perspective, Malaysia needs to formulate a rational and comprehensive policy for labour migration that will protect the basic rights of all non-citizens, in line with international law, and uphold their human dignity at all times.Aliran executive committee
13 February 2021