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KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 18 — Nearly 100 asylum-seekers are among the 1,200 Myanmar nationals Malaysia plans to send home by ship next week, refugee groups said today, as it takes a step activists fear could put the deportees’ lives at risk.
Although Malaysia does not formally recognise refugees, detaining them along with other undocumented migrants, it has vowed not to deport Rohingya Muslims and refugees identified by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Last week, Reuters reported the Southeast Asian nation had agreed to return the 1,200 Myanmar citizens after its neighbour’s military, which seized power in a Feb. 1 coup, offered to send navy ships to pick up those detained.
Concerns over refugee status persist, however, as the UN agency has not been allowed to interview detainees for more than a year to verify such claims.
Leaders of groups representing refugees from the Chin and Myanmar Muslim communities of Myanmar said detained asylum-seekers or their families had contacted them after being told they were set to be sent back in the naval vessels.
“They don’t want to go back to Myanmar,” said Thu Zar Moung, founder and chairwoman of the Myanmar Muslim Refugee Community, adding that 85 Myanmar Muslim detainees, women and children among them, had been confirmed among those set to be deported.
“Even during the trip from Malaysia to Myanmar, their lives can be threatened and (it is) dangerous,” she said, adding that there could be more.
James Bawi Thang Bik of the Alliance of Chin Refugees said his group had received calls from nine asylum-seekers notified that they would be deported.
Members of both communities have traditionally come to Malaysia after fleeing conflict or persecution at home.
Malaysia’s immigration department and the UNHCR did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Rights group Amnesty International called for UNHCR to get immediate access to those being deported.
“When the Malaysian government denies UNHCR access to detention for 1-1/2 years, it is jeopardising the lives of refugees and asylum seekers,” said Katrina Maliamauv, the group’s director in Malaysia. — Reuters