Groups seek to stop Malaysia from deporting Myanmar migrants

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KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Two human rights groups made a last-ditch legal bid on Monday to block Malaysia's plan to deport 1,200 Myanmar migrants, which they say include refugees, asylum seekers and minors.

Amnesty International Malaysia and Asylum Access Malaysia sought an order from the Kuala Lumpur High Court to halt the planned repatriation on Tuesday. Three Myanmar military ships arrived over the weekend to bring the migrants home and are docked at a naval base.

The two groups in their legal bid named three people registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and 17 minors who have at least one parent still in Malaysia, contrary to Malaysia's assurance earlier that there were no UNHCR cardholders or ethnic Muslim Rohingya refugees in the group.

“Sending them to Myanmar, at a time when the country is facing increasing human rights violations and violence committed in the course of a coup that led to at least two deaths over the weekend, is a cruel act that violates the international principle of non-refoulement," or not forcing a refugee to return home and face likely persecution, they said in a statement.

They said the repatriation is also tantamount to legitimizing ongoing human rights violations by Myanmar's military and would put the migrants at risk of further persecution, violence and even death. They urged Malaysia to immediately grant UNCHR full access to the 1,200 people.

The UNHCR, which has been barred from Malaysia's immigration detention centers since August 2019, said separately on Monday that there were at least six people registered with it among the group due to be deported.

Spokesperson Yante Ismail said UNHCR is urgently seeking access to the group to assess their claims for protection. She said once the agency has determined who shouldn't be returned, Malaysian can then proceed with the deportation of others.

Malaysian immigration officials couldn't be immediately reached for comment. The department earlier said the 1,200 migrants were held for offenses including not having valid travel documents, overstaying their visas and violating social visit passes.

A group of 27 Malaysian lawmakers and senators also sent a letter to Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin on Sunday urging him to halt the deportation. With Myanmar’s military junta backtracking on the country’s democratic process following the Feb. 1 coup, they voiced concern that the migrants could face persecution if they were sent back.

Malaysia doesn't recognize asylum seekers or refugees, but has allowed a large population to stay on humanitarian grounds. It is home to some 180,000 U.N. refugees and asylum seekers — including more than 100,000 Rohingya and other Myanmar ethnic groups.

More than 700,000 Rohingya have fled from Myanmar since August 2017, when the military launched a clearance operation in response to attacks by a rebel group. The security forces have been accused of mass rapes, killings and the burning of thousands of homes.