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International relations

Malaysia sticks to deporting Myanmar detainees despite UN pressure

Kuala Lumpur insists no refugees involved as move spotlights immigration system

KUALA LUMPUR -- Malaysia remains committed to repatriating around 1,200 Myanmar nationals held in the country's immigration detention centers next Tuesday, despite strong protests from civil rights groups and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

While Myanmar is in turmoil over the recent military coup, a source in Malaysia's Immigration Department told Nikkei Asia the detainees will be sent back as scheduled, requesting anonymity because he was not authorized to speak. An analyst, meanwhile, acknowledged Malaysia's concerns about illegal immigration but argued the controversy shows the need for better coordination with the U.N.

The people are to be deported on three vessels dispatched by Myanmar's navy, as agreed by the junta that ousted the democratically elected government on Feb. 1. The source explained that the Myanmar nationals were held for either possessing expired travel permits or no documents at all.

"They were detained because they were undocumented, a process Immigration undertakes for nationals of any foreign country," the source said.

The Malaysian government was quick to speak out on the Myanmar military takeover, with Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin calling it a "setback to democracy" and joining Indonesian President Joko Widodo in calling for an Association of Southeast Asian Nations meeting on the crisis.

But Malaysia has come under fire for the deportation plan. "The principle of non-refoulement applies also in Malaysia as part of customary international law which is binding on all states," Yante Ismail, a UNHCR spokesman in Kuala Lumpur, was quoted by Reuters as saying this week.

That principle holds that no one should be returned to a country where they would be in danger. One particular concern is whether any of the detainees might be Rohingya Muslims -- hundreds of thousands of whom fled alleged persecution by Myanmar's armed forces in the years before the coup.

Malaysia intercepts Rohingya refugees in 2018: Kuala Lumpur insists no Rohingya are among the 1,200 detainees due to be deported to Myanmar.   © Reuters

Malaysia's Immigration Director-General Khairul Dzaimee Daud on Monday issued a statement saying the deportation does not involve Rohingya Muslims nor anyone carrying a UNHCR card. He called the move part of "regular repatriation exercises carried out by Immigration depots."

When contacted by Nikkei the next day to confirm the absence of Rohingya and inquire whether international pressure might prompt a rethink, Khairul merely replied, "I have made a statement."

The Immigration Department source conceded that it would be difficult to distinguish undocumented immigrants from refugees who have lost their UNHCR cards.

The Reuters report also noted that the UNHCR has not been allowed to inspect Malaysia's detention centers since August 2019, making it impossible to identify refugees and leaving no way out for asylum seekers.

"While Malaysia's grave concerns lest it become a regional hub for illegal immigration are understandable and should be swiftly dealt with, in the present case, and in view of the recent coup in Myanmar, these detainees should have at least been screened by UNHCR," said Oh Ei Sun, senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.

He added that "in the long run, a better coordinated illegal immigration policy should also be laid out, with close cooperation with and access by UNHCR."

The Bukit Jalil immigration detention center in Kuala Lumpur.   © Reuters

Malaysia is not a signatory to the United Nations' 1951 convention and 1967 protocol on the status of refugees. The country criminalizes all arrivals without proper documentation, while refugees are not allowed to work, do business or receive health care discounts.

The UNHCR counted 178,610 refugees and asylum seekers registered with the organization in Malaysia as of the end of last year. Among them, over 154,000 were from Myanmar -- mostly Rohingya Muslims who escaped conflict-ridden parts of the country in and after 2015.

Oh suggested Malaysia needs to strike a careful balance, with other countries sharing some of the responsibility.

"While a stern signal would be sent by Malaysia regionally on its strong stance against illegal immigration, the wider international community, especially the developed countries, would likely look askance at what they consider to be wholesale, indiscriminate deportation of immigrant detainees," he stressed.

"That said, these same concerned countries must be prepared to take in those determined to be refugees, as Malaysia, just like many other developing countries, can ill-afford to let them stay on for long."

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