Nearly 100 asylum-seekers are among 1,200 Myanmar nationals Malaysia plans to send home next week, refugee groups said on Thursday, in a move activists fear could put the deportees' lives at risk.
Last week, Reuters reported the Southeast Asian nation had agreed to return the 1,200 Myanmar citizens after its neighbour's military, which seized power in a Feb. 1 coup, offered to send navy ships to pick up those detained.
Although Malaysia is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention and detains refugees with other undocumented migrants, it has vowed not to deport Rohingya Muslims and refugees identified by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Concerns over deportation of asylum-seekers persist, however, as the UN agency has not been allowed to interview detainees for more than a year to verify and register them.
Leaders of groups representing refugees from the Chin and Muslim communities in Myanmar said detained asylum-seekers or their families had contacted them after being told they would be sent back.
"They don't want to go back to Myanmar," said Thu Zar Moung, founder and chairwoman of the Myanmar Muslim Refugee Community, adding that 85 Myanmar Muslim detainees, women and children among them, had been confirmed among those set to be deported. Her group represents Myanmar Muslim communities other than the Rohingya.
"Even during the trip from Malaysia to Myanmar, their lives can be threatened and (it is) dangerous," she said.
James Bawi Thang Bik of the Alliance of Chin Refugees said his group had received calls from nine asylum-seekers notified that they would be deported.
Members of both communities have traditionally come to Malaysia after fleeing conflict or persecution at home.
Malaysia's immigration department did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The UNHCR said it has received information from refugee groups that unregistered asylum-seekers could be deported, but it had not yet been able to verify that was the case.
"We have expressed our concerns to the government of Malaysia at the highest level, that individuals in need of international protection should not be deported to a situation where their lives or freedoms may be at risk," Yante Ismail, a spokeswoman for UNHCR Malaysia, said in an emailed statement.
Rights group Amnesty International called for UNHCR to get immediate access to those being deported.
"When the Malaysian government denies UNHCR access to detention for one-and-a-half years, it is jeopardising the lives of refugees and asylum seekers," said Katrina Maliamauv, the group's director in Malaysia.