KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - A Malaysian court on Tuesday agreed to let rights groups challenge the government’s plans to send detained Myanmar nationals home, where the United Nations says at least 50 people have been shot and killed in recent protests against a military coup.
Malaysia sent 1,086 Myanmar nationals home on February 23, hours after the Kuala Lumpur High Court ordered a stay on deporting a group of 1,200.
Rights groups Amnesty International and Asylum Access asked for the stay the day before, concerned that refugees and asylum-seekers may be among the group and that sending them back would put their lives at risk.
Tuesday’s new ruling by the High Court grants an indefinite reprieve for the 114 Myanmar nationals among the original 1,200 who have yet to be deported.
Brian Yap, a research consultant for Amnesty International Malaysia, said Tuesday’s decision means the 114 will stay in Malaysia at least until a judicial review of the government’s deportation plans runs its course.
“In other words the government cannot deport these Myanmar nationals until the KL High Court has decided on this judicial review, which can take a few months or more,” he said. “There’s no exact date.”
The rights groups are not sure who the 114 people are, or even whether that’s the right number, as the Malaysian government has not granted the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees access to its immigration depots since August 2019. But they believe at least six refugees registered with the U.N. and dozens more asylum-seekers may be among them, based on names they’ve been provided by the Myanmar community in Malaysia.
Yap said the rights groups will be asking for the full name and age of each of the 1,200, along with details on exactly why each of them was detained and where the 114 still in Malaysia are being held.
Malaysia’s Ministry of Home Affairs referred questions about the case to an assistant director in the immigration department who could not be reached. An email to the department requesting comment went unanswered.
Asylum Access Malaysia Director Tham Hui Ying welcomed the court decision and said it could also prove a watershed for the country, which does not officially recognize refugees but lumps them together with illegal immigrants.
“What’s really important for us was that … the judge acknowledged that this was a matter of public interest and that this is not a frivolous case and that NGOs have standing in situations such as this to … challenge the actions of the government,” she said.
“This decision allows us to challenge other potential deportations or attempts by the government to deport people,” she added.
Tham said rights groups believe Malaysia is holding at least 3,000 more Myanmar nationals across the country and worry there may also be refugees and asylum-seekers among them at risk of being deported to a country in the grips of a bloody military takeover.
Myanmar’s military toppled the country’s democratically elected government on February 1 after rounding up the top ranks of the ruling National League for Democracy, including de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi. The military claims, without evidence, that a 2020 general election the NLD won was riddled with fraud.
Since the putsch, hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets and gone on strike across Myanmar to demand that the military restore the country’s elected government. Police and soldiers have met the protests with tear gas, rubber bullets and live rounds. A local rights group says authorities have also arrested hundreds of additional protesters, activists and journalists both during the day and on nightly home raids.
Yap said Malaysia should take humanitarian and other conditions into account when deciding who to deport and hoped that Tuesday’s court decision will nudge the government to do so.
“This decision, it doesn’t mean that the government cannot deport anyone at all,” said Yap.
“It simply means that if there are grounds that this person cannot be deported then the government should not deport, and I think that’s really the whole basis of this challenge. It’s not a blanket challenge against all government authority to deport people,” he added. “But there are very specific circumstances where you shouldn’t deport.”
A spokeswoman for the UNHCR in Malaysia said the agency also welcomed Tuesday’s court ruling and was still urging the government to let it meet with detainees.
“We remain concerned that there may be refugees and individuals in need of international protection among those detained and facing possible deportation, and are currently seeking clarification from Malaysian authorities on the matter,” said Yante Ismail.
“As a matter of urgency we have asked the authorities that all individuals in need of international protection should not be deported to a situation where their lives or freedoms may be at risk.”
While Malaysia does not officially recognize refugees, it has typically allowed the U.N. to issue them cards meant to grant them some protection from being arbitrarily deported.
Of the nearly 179,000 refugees the UNHCR had registered in Malaysia as of December, 154,000 were from Myanmar.