NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) has called for a thorough investigation into the immigration department following news that over 1,000 Myanmar nationals were deported to their homeland yesterday despite a court order freezing any action until a hearing scheduled for this morning.
In a statement today, it said appropriate disciplinary or legal action should be taken against anyone found to have acted in violation of the order issued by the Kuala Lumpur High Court, with rules and regulations put in place to ensure that any future returns are in full compliance with international law.
“Malaysia’s immigration authorities have shown a blatant disregard both for the basic rights of Myanmar nationals and an order by the Malaysian High Court,” Linda Lakhdhir, the NGO’s Asia legal adviser said.
“The immigration director-general has put lives at risk by sending people back to a country now ruled again by a military that has a long track record of punishing people for political dissent or their ethnicity.”
A total of 1,086 detainees were sent back on three Myanmar navy ships from a military base after arriving on packed trucks and buses under police escort.
The plan to send back 1,200 Myanmar nationals had been criticised by the United Nations and rights groups, with Amnesty International and Asylum Access lodging a court challenge.
The groups argued that Malaysia would be in breach of its international duties by sending vulnerable people back to a country where they could be in danger.
The High Court ordered a halt to the repatriation to allow a hearing to take place today into the groups’ bid to stop the deportations.
However, immigration chief Khairul Dzaimee Daud later said the 1,086 had been sent back to Myanmar. He made no mention of the court ruling.
“The immigration department wants to emphasise that no Rohingya migrants or asylum seekers have been sent back,” he said in a statement.
“All of those who have been deported agreed to return of their own free will, without being forced.”
But Lakhdhir said the immigration department “should recognise that it cannot operate above the law”.
“With Myanmar’s brutal military back in power, the risks of returning Myanmar nationals fearing return are higher than ever,” she added.
She also noted previous claims by authorities that no refugee cardholders were among those scheduled for return, saying “the immigration department’s assurances carry little weight”.
“Without a full and transparent investigation into these returns and an order permitting UNHCR access to all detainees, refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia are at risk of prolonged detention and return to persecution.”
According to HRW, more than 178,000 refugees were registered with UNHCR in Malaysia as of December last year.
It said more than 86% are from Myanmar, including more than 100,000 Rohingya, 22,000 Chin, and 29,000 from other ethnic communities.
It also cited the groups’ application for judicial review filed on Feb 22 in which they said they had received information that at least three UNHCR cardholders were among those scheduled for return.
“The groups also received information indicating that at least 17 children with one or more parent in Malaysia were among those scheduled for return,” it said.
“The international legal principle of nonrefoulement prohibits countries from returning any person on its territory or under its jurisdiction 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, nonrefoulement is recognised as part of customary international law and is binding on all states.
“Given the Myanmar military’s repression of critics of the coup or the junta, as well as the military’s record of abuses against ethnic minorities, Malaysia’s failure to provide fair asylum procedures or allow UNHCR to make refugee determinations violates the government’s international legal obligations.”