Malaysia's forced deportations cannot be tolerated
The Feb 1 putsch by Myanmar's military has halted the country's democratic transition, sparking nationwide protests. Shortly after, on Feb 24, amid mounting concerns over the increasing use of violence against civilians in Myanmar, Malaysia deported 1,086 Myanmar nationals back into the depths of the chaos. Malaysia's actions are the latest blow to the multiple crises facing the people of Myanmar, adding a new burden to a fragile state grappling with the Covid-19 pandemic, unresolved ethnic armed conflicts and an increasingly violent coup. It raises the alarm about the increasing insecurity faced by refugees and migrants from Myanmar in other countries in the region, including Bangladesh and Malaysia.
The pandemic has exacerbated the vulnerabilities faced by hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants in Malaysia, causing widespread job losses, resulting in destitution, and homelessness. Data from the 4Mi survey of the Mixed Migration Center (MMC) shows that 60% of Bangladeshis and Rohingya interviewed in Malaysia have lost their income due to Covid-19 restrictions, leading to them being unable to shop for basic items, send payments and even losing their homes. The survey found that nearly 90% were in need of basic items, including food, water and shelter, as well as medical support.
During the pandemic, refugees and migrants in Malaysia need assistance from their host government more than ever. Instead, they have faced nationwide immigration crackdowns that have targeted undocumented people, leading to more than 8,000 being arrested and held in Malaysian detention centres. Throughout this time many have been forcibly deported. In July last year, in the middle of the pandemic, more than 19,000 undocumented migrants were sent back to their home countries, the majority of whom were Indonesians, followed by Bangladeshi and Myanmar nationals.
The recent deportation of more than 1,000 Myanmar nationals from Malaysia highlights the continuation of the country's worrying policy towards refugees and undocumented migrants. With the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) denied access to Malaysian detention centres since August 2019, those deported include at least nine people seeking asylum and in need of international protection, as well as migrants in vulnerable situations, including unaccompanied and separated minors. Furthermore, deporting migrants and refugees amid ongoing political turmoil and violence in Myanmar will only exacerbate their vulnerabilities and protection needs.
Malaysia has a long history of hosting refugees and migrants starting as early as the British colonial period. Later, with Malaysia's industrialisation process heavily dependent on export-oriented labour-intensive industries, the recruitment of foreign labour became an important developmental strategy. Today, the strong demand for low-skilled foreign workers continues which, together with open visa policies, make Malaysia an attractive destination for labour migrants from around the region. This includes migrants going to Malaysia through regular pathways with work permits, as well as undocumented migrants in irregular situations.
Malaysia had historically been tolerant towards refugees fleeing persecution in the region. In the 1970s, Vietnamese refugees fled the Vietnam War and were housed by Malaysia before being repatriated. During the same period, Filipino refugees from Mindanao went to Malaysia and were granted residence permits. Similarly, ethnic Chams fleeing Cambodia in the 1970s and Bosnians arriving in Malaysia in the 1990s were given the option of being awarded residency status. In 2005, Acehnese fleeing ethnic violence in Indonesia were also provided temporary residence. More recently Muslim-majority Malaysia has been a primary protection destination for refugees with Islamic backgrounds fleeing persecution from countries such as Myanmar, Afghanistan, Yemen and Palestine.
At the end of January, 178,710 refugees and asylum seekers were registered with UNHCR in Malaysia, the majority of whom were from Myanmar, with more than 100,000 Rohingya together with other persecuted ethnic minorities. The country also hosts around two million documented foreign workers, along with an estimated 2-4 million without documentation.
However, Covid-19 has hardened the Malaysian government's stance on refugees and migrants. Border restrictions in response to Covid-19 have led to pushbacks of boats carrying hundreds of Rohingya refugees in need of protection. Within the country, government rhetoric has increasingly portrayed refugees and migrants as a source of virus transmission, fuelling discrimination and hate speech, as well as shrinking protection spaces for refugees and people seeking asylum.
Since May 2020, a series of police raids, arrests, detention and deportations carried out by Malaysian authorities have created widespread fear and have affected thousands of undocumented migrants and refugees all over the country. These actions further undermined their significant contribution to the country's economy, particularly in labour-intensive sectors.
Conflicts have simmered in multiple parts of Myanmar for decades but the humanitarian and human rights concerns are now higher than ever. Since June 2020, after a 17-year ceasefire, conflict resumed in Kachin state, which previously displaced more than 100,000 people. In Rakhine State, the protracted conflict against the Muslim minority Rohingya has posed threats to the safety of around 600,000 people, including 120,000 who are effectively confined to camps. Meanwhile the nearly one million Rohingya refugees who fled to Bangladesh have faced worsening conditions and increasing instability, with many recently relocated to the isolated island of Bhasan Char.
The Covid-19 pandemic has further proved that Myanmar does not have the capacity to protect people within its border, even before the military coup. In 2020, the spontaneous return of more than 160,000 migrants from Thailand amid the pandemic put a strain on the economy. Widespread unemployment and destitution, together with the closing of land borders, have further worsened the situation of the country's poor and displaced people.
With no durable solutions in sight for the protracted conflicts, growing economic difficulties and political instability, Myanmar nationals will likely continue seeking refuge abroad or embark on risky irregular journeys to other countries, mainly Thailand and Malaysia, both for safety and better livelihood opportunities. Forced deportations, like those carried out by Malaysia, will further take away their rights to international protection and increase their vulnerabilities.
The only way forward is a human rights-centred regional response framework.
The lack of a comprehensive regional framework on irregular migration and refugee issues has led to ad hoc responses as well as the reluctance of many states in the region to uphold the rights of migrants. As a result, hundreds of lives of refugees and irregular migrants were lost at sea in 2020, while arrests and forced deportations have affected thousands of others.
This highlights an important fact: a regional framework facilitating responsibility-sharing between states and ensuring adherence to non-repatriation principles are urgently needed.
Since its inception in 2002, the Bali Process on People Smuggling, Trafficking in People and Related Transnational Crime has raised regional awareness of the consequences of such offences. However, its scope needs to be expanded to cover the matter of irregular migrants and refugees from a human rights-centred approach. Adherence to objectives and commitments under existing global and regional initiatives, including the Global Compact for Migration and the Global Compact on Refugees, will be crucial in holding countries accountable for their actions.
While refugee resettlement continues to be largely on hold as a result of Covid-19, integration of refugees and migrants into the host community will be a critical solution. The deportations of undocumented people in Malaysia, including people seeking international protection and migrants in vulnerable situations, must be immediately stopped. Instead, Malaysia should provide protection to migrants and refugees in need, including those from Myanmar, who face great risks and uncertainty if they are repatriated amid the current political turmoil in the country.
Hanh Nguyen is a Researcher at the Mixed Migration Center, Asia.