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A perfect storm: Malaysia’s forced deportation of refugees and migrants from Myanmar amid the military coup

The following op-ed was originally compiled for the Bangkok Post and has been reproduced here for wider access through this website’s readership.

On 1 February 2021, Myanmar’s military overthrew its newly elected government, halting the country’s democratic transition and sparking nationwide protests. Shortly after, amid mounting concerns over the increasing use of violence against civilians in Myanmar, on 24 February, Malaysia deported 1,086 Myanmar nationals into the depths of chaos. Malaysia’s actions are the latest blow to the multiple crises facing the people of Myanmar, adding new burden to the fragile state grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic, unresolved ethnic armed conflicts, and an increasingly violent coup. It raises alarms about the increasing insecurity faced by refugees and migrants from Myanmar in other countries in the region, including Bangladesh and Malaysia.

The global COVID-19 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 the inability to afford basic goods or send remittance, as well as a loss of housing. 4Mi data also finds that nearly 90% are in need of basic items, including food, water, and shelter, as well as medical support.

During the pandemic, refugees and migrants in Malaysia more than ever need assistance from their host government. Instead, they have faced nationwide immigration crackdowns targeting undocumented people leading to more than 8,000 being arrested and held in Malaysian detention centers. Throughout this time many have been forcibly deported. In July last year, in the middle of the pandemic, over 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 concerning policy towards refugees and undocumented migrants. With UNHCR denied access to Malaysian detention centers since August 2019, those deported include at least 9 people seeking asylum 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 – a safe haven no more

Malaysia has a long history of hosting refugees and migrants starting as early as the British colonial period. Later on, with Malaysia’s industrialization process heavily dependent on export-oriented labor-intensive industries, the recruitment of foreign labor 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 labor migrants from the region. This includes migrants coming to Malaysia through regular pathways with work permits, as well as migrants in irregular situations with no legal right to work.

Simultaneously, Malaysia has historically been tolerant toward refugees fleeing persecution in the region. In the 1970s, Vietnamese refugees fled the Vietnam War and were housed by Malaysia before being repatriated. Also during the same period, Filipino refugees from Mindanao came to Malaysia and were granted residence permits. Similarly, ethnic Chams fleeing Cambodia in the 1970s and Bosnians coming to Malaysia in the 1990s were provided the option of residence. 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.

As of the end of January 2021, there are some 178,710 refugees and asylum seekers registered with UNHCR in Malaysia, the majority of whom are from Myanmar, comprised of more than 100,000 Rohingya together with other persecuted ethnic minorities. The country also hosts around 2 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, fueling 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 undermine their significant contribution to the country’s economy, particularly in labor-intensive sectors.

Protracted and new crises in Myanmar

For decades, conflicts have simmered in multiple parts of Myanmar, but the mounting 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 Rohingya, including 120,000 people who are effectively confined to camps. Meanwhile the nearly 1 million Rohingya refugees who fled to Bangladesh have faced worsening conditions and increasing instability with recent relocations 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 poor and displaced people in Myanmar.

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.

Human rights-centered regional response framework is the way forward

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-refoulement principles is an urgent need.

Since its inception in 2002, the Bali Process on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime has raised regional awareness of the consequences of people smuggling, trafficking in persons, and related transnational crime. However, its scope needs to be expanded to cover the matter of irregular migrants and refugees from a human rights-centered 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, including people seeking international protection, as well as migrants in vulnerable situations, in Malaysia must be immediately stopped. Instead, Malaysia should provide protection to migrants and refugees in need, including those from Myanmar, who would face great risks and uncertainty if they were deported back to Myanmar amid the current political turmoil in the country.