Myanmar vessels UMS Than Lwin (R) and UMS Sin Phyu Shin, which will be used to deport Myanmar migrants from Malaysia back to their homeland, are seen docked at a jetty in Lumut, outside Kuala Lumpur, Feb. 22, 2021.
Myanmar vessels UMS Than Lwin (R) and UMS Sin Phyu Shin, which will be used to deport Myanmar migrants from Malaysia back to their homeland, are seen docked at a jetty in Lumut, outside Kuala Lumpur, Feb. 22, 2021.

KUALA LUMPUR - The United Nations and rights groups are urging Malaysia to reconsider its plans to repatriate some 1,200 Myanmar nationals on Tuesday, saying they include asylum seekers and registered refugees whose lives will be put at risk.

Myanmar’s military has been waging a brutal counterinsurgency against a patchwork of ethnic-minority rebel armies since the country’s independence in 1948, a struggle that has scattered thousands of refugees across the region. The military took full control of the country after toppling the democratically elected government on Feb. 1, sparking widespread protests and an increasingly violent crackdown.

News of Malaysia’s plans to send the Myanmar nationals in its detention depots back home broke just over a week ago. On Feb. 15, via state-run news outlet Bernama, Malaysia’s immigration chief, Khairul Dzaimee Daud, said they were all picked up for immigration offenses and that none held a U.N.-issued refugee card.

The office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, however, says it has registered at least half a dozen of them.

“That means…at some point their claims have been assessed by us and they’ve been verified to be in need of international protection,” Yante Ismail, spokeswoman for the UNHCR’s country team, told VOA on Monday.

She said the UNHCR received names of detainees from members of the Myanmar community in Malaysia and cross-referenced them with its own records of registered refugees. The list of names is incomplete, so the agency believes there may be more refugees among them.

“We have not received approval from immigration authorities to access detainees in immigration detention centers, and so we are concerned that there may be others of concern to UNHCR in the group,” Ismail said.

“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 freedom may be at risk,” she added.

A spokesman for Malaysia’s Immigration Department did not answer VOA’s call on Monday.

Malaysia does not officially recognize refugees from any country, but authorities have 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 whom the UNHCR had registered in Malaysia as of December, 154,000 were from Myanmar.

FILE - Rohingya refugees wearing protective masks keep a social distance wait to receive goods from volunteers, during the outbreak of COVID-19, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, April 7, 2020.

Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other groups echo the U.N.’s concerns and want Malaysia to postpone its plans to send back the Myanmar nationals at least until the U.N. can vet them properly.

The groups have voiced concern that some of those being deported may not have had their U.N.-issued cards with them when they were picked up and say others had applied for asylum but were yet to have their claims assessed.

“We’re also concerned that there are some minors in the group who in fact have parents who are outside of the detention camp who are in Malaysia, which means that deporting them is going to cause separation between the child and the parent, at least one parent, in some cases two,” said Lilianne Fan, a co-chair of the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network.

“We do have strong reason to believe that there are unaccompanied minors as well,” she told VOA.

Fan said sending the detainees back to a Myanmar being run unchecked by a military well known for crushing protests with punishing force would put them all at risk, but especially those who had fled to escape the military to begin with.

For them, she said, “The risk is even greater now because that same military that they were running away from is now in charge of the entire country.”

Fan said she was working with Amnesty International and others to ask Malaysia’s courts for a last-minute injunction that would stop the deportations, even as they received reports that authorities had started transferring the group to the coast to board ships bound for home.

The Reuters news agency has reported that a fleet of Myanmar-flagged ships was already anchored off Malaysia’s Lumut naval base to pick them up. The dilemma is not Malaysia’s alone.

The Bangkok Post reported in recent days that Thailand’s immigration authorities have put a hold on plans to repatriate 140 Myanmar nations detained there because of the coup.

“We’re hoping that Malaysia could follow suit,” said Fan.