A day before Malaysia deported more than 1,000 people to Myanmar in defiance of a court order and protests from human rights groups, a young mother worried about her illegal status killed herself by jumping from the first floor of her apartment building in Kuala Lumpur.
The woman, who was not one of those targeted for Tuesday’s (Feb 23) mass deportation, had fled civil war in Myanmar’s Kachin state. She is thought to have become depressed after both she and her husband lost their jobs to the coronavirus pandemic.
Her death on Monday was the latest in a string of suicides by refugees and migrant workers from Myanmar to have occurred in Malaysia since the pandemic began.
“The couple were facing money problems, had debts and she worried over her undocumented status,” said Nang Moon, who works with refugee groups and belongs to the Malaysia branch of the Myanmar political party National League for Democracy.
“She is also believed to have been suffering from postpartum depression.”
She estimated this was the 24th such suicide since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic last year, though added, “We don’t know the exact figure.”
La Seng, head of the Kachin Refugee Organisation in Malaysia, said the woman had been in Malaysia since 2014, was 28 years old and left behind a three-month-old daughter. “Her husband is very depressed,” said La Seng.
Rights groups say the pandemic has hit the job prospects of both documented and undocumented migrants in the country.
It has also effectively turned many documented workers into undocumented ones; some lose their work permits when they lose their jobs, others lose their permits when unscrupulous employers fail to renew them in a bid to cut costs.
Malaysia is thought to host more than 154,000 asylum seekers from Myanmar. There are no official figures for how many documented and undocumented workers from Myanmar are in the country.
Nang Moon, who volunteers for refugee groups, said both men and women were among the suicide victims. They were usually young, died alone and buried in Malaysia.
“Some of their families in Myanmar do not even know they died as we, the Myanmar community here, were unable to trace them,” said Nang Moon.
“The suicide victims are jobless, undocumented, lack linguistic skills, are scared of the police, had no money for rent and had family problems. Some borrowed money to come to Malaysia,” said Nang Moon.
Following the deportation of 1,086 Myanmar nationals on Tuesday, the remaining diaspora are now even more worried.
Nang Moon said 10,000 Myanmar nationals had been due to return home after losing their jobs, but were now scared to leave following the Feb 1 military coup.
“The people don’t know what will happen to them when they go home. They are also scared of being recruited by the military and forced to fight pro-democracy protesters back home,” said Nang Moon.
The United States on Wednesday (Feb 24) expressed concern at Malaysia going ahead with Tuesday’s mass deportation.
State Department spokesman Ned Price noted that this occurred “in spite of a Malaysian court order barring their deportation and in light of ongoing unrest in Burma that of course has been taking place since the coup”.
“We continue to urge all countries in the region contemplating returning Burmese migrants back to Burma to halt those repatriations until the [United Nations High Commission for Refugees] can assess whether these migrants have any protection concerns,” he said.
Amnesty Malaysia and several lawmakers called on the Malaysian government to explain why the government defied a court-ordered stay of proceedings.
“We believe the government owes an explanation to the people of Malaysia as to why they chose to defy the court order, and on the identity and status of all [those deported],” said Katrina Jorene Maliamauv, executive director of Amnesty Malaysia.
“These dangerous deportations have not been properly scrutinised and put individuals at grave risk. Authorities must halt them before they endanger more lives. They must stop trying to railroad these deportations without accountability. Finally, they must immediately grant the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees [UNHCR] access to the group,” said Maliamauv.
Amnesty warned that migrant workers who had made “critical comments against the Myanmar government” during their time in Malaysia could face arrest and prosecution on their return.
“There is clear, documented evidence of an escalation in human rights violations in Myanmar since the coup earlier this month. Therefore, no deportation to Myanmar can be treated as part of any ‘normal exercise’, but demands more scrutiny,” said Maliamauv.
UNHCR has been denied access to Malaysia’s immigration detention centres since August 2019, and was denied access to the list of those being deported on Tuesday. It was therefore unable to evaluate the risks they face.
To prevent further such violations, the UNHCR must be given immediate and urgent access to all detention facilities, said Maliamauv.
On Feb 22, Amnesty International Malaysia and Asylum Access Malaysia jointly filed an action in the Kuala Lumpur High Court to prevent the deportation. The following afternoon the court granted an interim order halting the deportation.
That evening, despite the court order, the government went ahead with the deportation.
Four opposition lawmakers questioned whether the deportation amounted to contempt of court and told authorities to provide more details of those deported.
The lawmakers criticised the deportation as “an inhumane act by the Malaysian government, the prime minister, home minister and the director general of the Immigration Department.”
A statement by the lawmakers said the act showed “the Malaysian government does not respect the ongoing court process and has put Malaysia in a bad light on the human rights front”.
- Samaritans of Singapore: 1800-221-4444
- Singapore Association for Mental Health: 1800-283-7019
- Care Corner Counselling Centre (Mandarin): 1800-353-5800
- Institute of Mental Health’s Mental Health Helpline: 6389-2222
- Silver Ribbon: 6386-1928
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.