Malaysia rejects at least 150 Myanmar refugees since the start of the month
by Steve Suwannarat

The refugees turned away include opponents of Myanmar’s ruling junta. According to the United Nations, Malaysia hosts at least 158,000 asylum seekers from Myanmar, two thirds of whom are ethnic Rohingya.

Kuala Lumpur (AsiaNews) – A new wave of expulsions in Malaysia raises concern about the fate of Myanmar refugees who have sought asylum in neighbouring Southeast Asian countries after long and perilous sea journeys.

At least 150 asylum seekers have been deported since the start of the month, despite international pressure and assurances from the Malaysian authorities. They include several opponents of Myanmar’s military who overthrew the country’s civilian government on 1 February 2021, sparking a brutal civil war.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), about 158,500 refugees and asylum seekers from Myanmar had found refuge in Malaysia by the end of July,  about two-thirds ethnic Rohingya and one third from other ethnic groups opposed to Myanmar’s military regime.

Many reached Malaysia following the land route through Thailand, while others, like the persecuted Rohingya, arrived after travelling first to Bangladesh, which hosts hundreds of thousands of them.

Malaysia has upheld the international legal principle of non-refoulement, but this has not been matched by an equal commitment to granting refugees a legal status that allows a safe stay, at least until relocation to third countries. This has led to abuses perhaps as a part of a policy of deterrence to discourage people from coming to Malaysia.

Although the Southeast Asian country has been the ASEAN member most critical of Myanmar’s military junta, it has entertained an ambiguous attitude towards refugees, as evinced by the expulsion of refugees who belong to Myanmar’s pro-democracy opposition.

The latter include members of the National League for Democracy, the party of former civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and members of the National Unity Government (NUG), which leads the armed resistance within Myanmar and supports internally displaced persons (IDPs) who now number over a million, mostly from minority ethnic groups.

Recently, Myanmar’s military junta decided that displaced people would no longer have access to camps or other facilities. This increases the risk that, despite sealed borders, more people might try to flee to Myanmar’s neighbours; the one exception being Thailand.