Malaysian court halts Myanmar deportation after outcry

Malaysian court halts Myanmar deportation after outcry

Officials insist those being sent back have committed offences such as overstaying their visas

An immigration truck carrying Myanmar migrants from Malaysia back to their homeland, is seen heading towards the Naval base in Lumut, outside Kuala Lumpur. Credit: AFP.

A Malaysian court Tuesday ordered a temporary halt to a controversial plan to deport 1,200 Myanmar detainees to their homeland weeks after a coup, following a last-ditch legal challenge.

The migrants, including members of vulnerable minorities, had already been taken in buses and trucks to a military base on Malaysia's west coast to be loaded onto waiting Myanmar navy ships.

The United States and the United Nations had criticised the plan, while rights groups said there were asylum seekers among those due to be repatriated.

Read: G7 'firmly condemn' Myanmar military attacks on protesters

In their court challenge, rights groups Amnesty International and Asylum Access argued Malaysia would be in breach of its international duties by sending vulnerable people back to a country where they could be in danger.

Amnesty said it was "especially alarmed" the deportation was set to take place when there had been an "escalation of human rights violations" following the Myanmar military's seizure of power at the start of February.

The Kuala Lumpur High Court ordered a halt to the repatriation to allow a hearing to take place on Wednesday into the groups' bid to stop the deportations, their lawyer New Sin Yew told AFP.

Amnesty International Malaysia's executive director, Katrina Jorene Maliamauv, welcomed the ruling but said the detainees remained in danger of being deported to a country where they face "life-threatening risks".

"We urge the government to reconsider its plans to send this group of vulnerable people back to Myanmar," she said.

Earlier, dozens of buses and trucks carrying the migrants and escorted by police arrived at the naval base in Lumut, according to AFP journalists at the scene.

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Officials insist those being sent back have committed offences such as overstaying their visas and no members of the persecuted Rohingya minority -- not recognised as citizens in Myanmar -- are among them.

They say it is part of their regular programme of deporting migrants from poorer parts of Asia to their countries of origin, and that about 37,000 foreigners were repatriated last year.

Malaysia is home to millions of migrants who work in low-paying jobs like construction.

It is rare for rights groups to launch legal challenges against deportations, but they were prompted to do so by concerns the migrants faced greater risks since the Myanmar military seized power and that some were asylum seekers.

Activists have been growing increasingly alarmed since authorities blocked the UN refugee agency from accessing immigration detention centres in Malaysia in 2019.

This means the UN cannot assess whether foreigners are economic migrants looking for work or asylum seekers fleeing persecution and conflict, who would usually be granted refugee status and the right to remain in Malaysia.

In the latest case, the detainees include members of the Christian Chin minority and people from conflict-riven Kachin and Shan states, according to Lilianne Fan, international director of the Geutanyoe Foundation, which works with refugees.

James Bawi Thang Bik, chairman of the Malaysia-based Alliance of Chin Refugees, said he was "shocked" to learn Chin were among those to be deported.

"They are refugees who came from a conflict area," he told AFP.

Authorities in mostly Buddhist Myanmar have gradually ratcheted up their use of force in response to a civil disobedience campaign, with three anti-coup protesters killed in demonstrations so far.

Malaysia initially expressed "serious concern" at the coup, but just days later news emerged it had accepted an offer from the Myanmar junta to send warships to repatriate the detainees.

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