KUALA LUMPUR: The ethnic Chin community should not have been given a deadline for the end of refugee protection until they can be guaranteed safe return to Myanmar, says Lawyers for Liberty executive director Latheefa Koya.
The lawyer and human rights activist warned that Malaysia would be “breaking the international law (of non-refoulement)” if they force the Chins to return without ensuring their safety.
The principle of non-refoulement is an international law that forbids a country from returning refugees and asylum seekers to a place where they will be in danger of threats and persecution.
Speaking at the Women’s Conference on Saturday (March 2), she said that the refugee community should be consulted and asked if they feared going back.
“There is a misconception that refugees want to stay here forever, but they actually want to go home or go somewhere that accepts them, and where they will be safe,” she said.
“The Chins only remain here because they aren’t ready to go back as Myanmar is not safe.
Universiti Sains Malaysia Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies Kamarulzaman Askandar reiterated that it was important to ensure refugees and asylum seekers are not sent home until there is a guarantee of security, unlike what was done with the Acehnese refugees.
“Malaysia had sent some Acehnese refugees home, and it wasn’t a good decision because some were arrested when they arrived in Medan, and some went missing,” he said.
In 2005, Acehnese refugees in Malaysia were included in a roundup during a crackdown on undocumented migrants, and some were sent back to Indonesia despite ongoing conflict persisting back home. On top of that, the province was still suffering from the devastating effects of the 2004 tsunami.
Kamarulzaman said that while the situation between the Acehnese and Chins aren’t the same and shouldn’t be compared, Malaysia should consider other options because there are still active safety concerns in Myanmar and the country has a policy of not accepting returning refugees.
“Malaysia should allow the Chins to stay or work with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to resettle them because there is no guarantee of safety in Myanmar, and there are ongoing security activities in Rakhine state that is bordering Chin state,” he said.
“Furthermore, there are many young Chin children who were born and grew up here not even having seen Myanmar before, so it’s not ideal to send them back. If people don’t want to go back, they shouldn’t be sent back,” he added.
In June 2018, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) announced the cessation of refugee protection for the Chins by Dec 31 this year, citing “positive developments” in Chin state.
There are around 26,000 Chin refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia, including an estimated 4,000 in India.
Foreign Minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah has previously said that the Malaysian government will not forcefully repatriate refugees, but will “stand guided” by UNHCR’s decision regarding the Chins.