KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (Reuters) – Malaysia sent more than 1,000 Myanmar nationals back to their devastated homeland on Tuesday despite a court order to stop deportation, pending a petition by rights groups to suspend a plan that they say it could endanger the lives of the deportees.
1,086 Myanmar citizens returned to three naval ships sent by the Myanmar army, which seized power in a February 1 coup, sparking weeks of protests by pro-democracy activists. Malaysia had initially said it would deport 1,200.
Malaysia has vowed not to deport Muslims or Rohingya refugees registered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
But the agency has said at least six people registered with it are among the deportees. Refugee groups also say asylum seekers from the Chin, Kachin and non-Rohingya minority communities fleeing conflict and persecution at home are among those deported.
The Director General of the Malaysian Immigration Department said that repatriated Myanmar citizens did not include Rohingya refugees or asylum seekers.
All those who returned had agreed to return voluntarily without being forced by either party, Khairul Dzaimee Daud said in a statement.
He did not answer questions about why the repatriation took place, despite the detention ordered by the Kuala Lumpur Supreme Court.
The court had given a stay until 10 a.m. Wednesday, when it was scheduled to hear a request from rights groups for a judicial review to suspend the eviction.
Shortly before the court order, the migrants were transported by bus from all over the country to the naval base at Lumut in western Malaysia, where Myanmar ships were anchored.
The deportees were detained for immigration offenses. Malaysia does not officially recognize refugees, treating them as undocumented migrants.
Amnesty International, one of the groups seeking the judicial review, said among those deported were three UNHCR registered persons and 17 juveniles with at least one parent in Malaysia.
We urge the government to reconsider its plans to send this vulnerable group back to Myanmar, where human rights violations are currently at high risk, said Katrina Maliamauv, director of Amnesty Malaysia, following the court ruling.
Concerns about the deportation of unregistered asylum seekers have continued, as the UNHCR has not been allowed to interview detainees for more than a year to verify their status. The Southeast Asian nation is home to more than 154,000 asylum seekers from Myanmar.
UNHCR was not allowed to enter the deportees on Tuesday.
The United States and other Western missions have sought to dissuade Malaysia from continuing deportation and have asked the government to allow the UNHCR to interview detainees. They also say Malaysia is legitimizing the military government by cooperating with the junta.
Additional reporting by Joseph Sipalan in Kuala Lumpur and Lim Huey Teng in Lumut; Editing by Ed Davies, Simon Cameron-Moore, Jacqueline Wong, William Maclean and Philippa Fletcher
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