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An immigration vehicle takes Myanmar nationals to a Malaysian naval base for deportation, February 23, 2021. © 2021 Mohd Rasfan/AFP via Getty Images

(Bangkok) – Malaysian authorities have since mid-August 2022 accelerated the number of asylum seekers summarily deported to Myanmar, where their lives and freedom are at risk, Human Rights Watch said today. Malaysian immigration authorities have since April returned over 2,000 Myanmar nationals, including military defectors, without assessing their asylum claims or other protection needs – more than half of them in the past two months.

Although more deportations are expected, the Malaysian government continues to deny the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, access to immigration detention centers. Since August 2019, UNHCR has been unable to assess whether those in detention are entitled to protection. The Malaysian government should urgently halt summary deportations and grant UNHCR immediate access to immigration detainees to determine their refugee status.

“Sending asylum seekers back to Myanmar means putting activists, dissidents, and persecuted minorities in the crosshairs of the repressive junta,” said Shayna Bauchner, Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Malaysian government should grant the UN refugee agency immediate and unfettered access to everyone held in immigration detention to assess their refugee status claims and other needs for protection.”

About 185,000 refugees and asylum seekers – the majority from Myanmar, including over 100,000 ethnic Rohingya Muslims – are registered with UNHCR in Malaysia. At least 17,500 people are being held in 21 immigration detention centers across the country, including more than 1,500 children. Conditions in immigration detention facilities are dire.

On September 2, officials from the junta-aligned Myanmar embassy in Kuala Lumpur met with Malaysian immigration officials to discuss the deportation of Myanmar nationals in immigration detention. The embassy and Malaysian immigration officials have since coordinated three chartered deportation flights, arranged by the Malaysian government, returning 149 Myanmar nationals on September 22, 150 on October 6, and 150 on October 20. An additional 1,500 Myanmar nationals were returned from immigration detention centers on Myanmar Airways International flights between April and mid-September, according to the Myanmar embassy and junta media.

Reuters reported that the October 6 flight included six officers who had defected from the Myanmar navy. Malaysian authorities had arrested the men in September. At least three of them had sought to have UNHCR review their asylum claims. Myanmar junta officials detained at least one of the officers and his wife upon their arrival in Yangon.

Given the junta’s widespread human rights violations, forcible returns of asylum seekers and refugees to Myanmar violate the international legal principle of nonrefoulement, which prohibits countries from returning anyone to a country where they may face persecution, torture, or other serious harm. Although Malaysia is not a party to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol, the principle of nonrefoulement is recognized as customary international law and is binding on all countries.

Since the February 2021 military coup, the Myanmar junta has carried out a nationwide campaign of mass killings, torture, arbitrary arrests, and indiscriminate attacks that amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes. Security forces have killed more than 2,300 people and arrested nearly 16,000, according to Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma).

Malaysia’s failure to provide fair asylum procedures or allow UNHCR to make refugee determinations also violates the government’s international legal obligations, Human Rights Watch said.

UNHCR stated on October 20 that it “is urgently appealing to countries in the region to immediately stop forced returns of Myanmar nationals seeking safety from serious harm. Sending them back to the country is placing countless lives at risk.”

The deportations are taking place amid an increasing hostile environment for refugees and migrants in Malaysia. In July, the government initiated a program requiring all refugees and asylum seekers to register for biometric ID cards to replace UNHCR cards, which is being overseen by the former head of police intelligence services. Officials have also recently proposed shutting down UNHCR’s presence in Malaysia to manage refugees “without foreign interference.”

In February 2021, immigration authorities violated a High Court order granting a temporary stay of deportation for 1,200 Myanmar nationals, transferring the majority to the Myanmar navy’s custody hours after the order. A group of UN experts stated they were “appalled” by the decision, and that Malaysia’s “defiance of the court order breached the principle of non-refoulement … which absolutely prohibits the collective deportation of migrants without an objective risk assessment being conducted in each individual case.”

The Malaysian government has effectively admitted to relying on so-called diplomatic assurances to protect returned Myanmar nationals from wrongful treatment in Myanmar. In response to a UN communication on the February 2021 deportations, the Malaysian government stated, “The Government of Malaysia reiterates that the repatriation of immigration detainees has been a regular and on-going effort.… The Myanmar Embassy in Kuala Lumpur had given assurance on the safety of all Myanmar immigration detainees who were returning to Myanmar voluntarily.”

Promises of safety provided by Myanmar’s junta, which has been implicated in numerous summary executions, torture, and other abuses, mean little, especially if they cannot be independently monitored. The Malaysian government cannot abdicate its obligations toward deportees by relying on such assurances.

Malaysia’s foreign minister, Saifuddin Abdullah, meanwhile, has called for stronger action against Myanmar’s junta, including by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). “ASEAN must decide – where do we stand?” Saifuddin said last month. “Do we continue with the junta? Or do we work without the junta and support the people who we know are doing good work?”

The Malaysian government should ratify the international Refugee Convention and establish asylum procedures consistent with international standards for stateless people and foreign nationals at risk of persecution in their home countries, Human Rights Watch said. The authorities should develop regulations to ensure that any future returns are in full compliance with international law.

“While some Malaysian leaders are calling out Myanmar’s junta for crimes against humanity, immigration authorities are forcibly returning asylum seekers directly into harm’s way, where they have real fears for their lives,” Bauchner said. “At the ASEAN summit in November, Southeast Asian leaders should commit to protecting people fleeing the junta’s atrocities and ensuring all parts of their governments do the same.”

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