International human rights groups advocating for asylum seekers were granted permission by a Malaysian high court on Tuesday to challenge the recent deportation of Myanmar nationals back to their homeland just weeks after a coup.
The ruling by the Kuala Lumpur High Court is a major step in a country where the law bars immigration decisions from being questioned in court.
The Malaysian government last month used three Myanmar navy ships to deport 1,086 people it claimed were illegal immigrants despite a court order halting the repatriation and a storm of criticism.
The deportation came just hours after an interim court order banning the group’s removal, pending a legal bid by Amnesty International and Asylum Access to halt the plan amid fears there were asylum seekers and children among the group.
The ruling by the high court paves the way for a full hearing on the deportations and extends a stay barring the removal of another 114 Myanmar nationals until the end of the judicial review.
The groups’ legal bid is unlikely to bring those who have already been deported, but could allow similar challenges against future removals, New Sin Yew, a lawyer for the human rights groups, told Reuters.
“It’s a very important decision because it recognises the function of non-government organisations like Asylum Access and Amnesty International and their standing in bringing judicial review to hold the authorities accountable,” New said, as he detailed the court’s decision.
The immigration department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the court ruling which will hear the challenge on Mar. 23.
The international rights groups had taken legal action amid fears that people targeted for repatriation included asylum seekers or refugees fleeing persecution in Myanmar, where the military seized power last month.
The European Union and the United States have expressed concern the deportations went ahead despite the interim court order, while several Malaysian lawmakers have said the move could amount to contempt of court.
Asylum Access Malaysia director Hui Ying Tham said the human rights groups had not yet decided whether to seek action against the government for contempt of court, but have asked authorities for more details on those deported.
“We are actually trying to get more information … as the deportation happened quite suddenly under very opaque circumstances,” she told a virtual news conference.
Malaysia’s immigration department has said the returned group did not include Rohingya refugees or asylum seekers, but concerns have persisted. The UN refugee agency has been denied access to detainees for more than a year to verify their status.
The rights groups in their court filing said three UN-registered people and 17 minors with at least one parent in Malaysia were on the deportee list.
It was unclear if those individuals were among the group already sent back, although other refugee groups have said at least nine asylum-seekers and two unaccompanied children were among those already deported.
Malaysia is home to more than 154,000 asylum-seekers from Myanmar, where the military seized power last month. (Source: CNA)