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UN Human Rights Office urges suspension of returns to Myanmar

The UN Human Rights Office for South-East Asia calls on States in the region to protect all those fleeing violence and persecution in Myanmar and ensure that refugees and undocumented migrants are not forcibly returned given the rapidly deteriorating human rights situation inside the country.

 Members of ethnic Karen communities fleeing attacks from the Myanmar military (Picture from the Friends Without Border Foundation

Since Myanmar’s military seized power in a 1 February coup, at least 510 peaceful protesters have been killed by security forces and 2,600 others have been detained, many of them held incommunicado or forcibly disappeared. Night raids, mass arrests and killings have become daily occurrences throughout the country. De facto military authorities have increasingly resorted to heavy weaponry such as rocket-propelled and fragmentation grenades, heavy machine guns, and snipers to kill demonstrators in massive numbers.

New fighting has also flared between the military and some ethnic armed organizations, including in Kayin state, where recent airstrikes have forced thousands of civilians to flee.

Civil servants, students, political activists and others who have opposed the coup, including defectors from the police and military, have fled Myanmar, while the UN Human Rights Office has received reports that some individuals seeking safety in the region have been forced to return to the country.

“No one should face the risk of being returned to Myanmar when their lives, safety or fundamental human rights are threatened,” said Cynthia Veliko, South-East Asia Regional Representative of the UN Human Rights Office in Bangkok. “Now is the time for us to stand in solidarity with the people of Myanmar.”

“In light of binding obligations under international refugee and human rights law, we call on all countries to ensure that all those seeking asylum are able to access the protection to which they are entitled under international law,” Veliko said.

States in the region should also ensure effective search and rescue, and refrain from intercepting or pushing back those who are trying to access sea or land routes to reach safety. The UN Human Rights Office is aware of reports that at least one boat carrying refugees from Myanmar is currently stranded in the Andaman Sea, unable to access safe disembarkation options. Coastal States and others should co-operate to identify a safe place to disembark these vulnerable people and ensure rights-based and regional solutions are found.

Millions of migrants from Myanmar live and work in countries across the region, but many may be fearful of returning to renew their visas or otherwise maintain a regular immigration status. Countries should consider putting in place measures to avoid migrants from Myanmar falling into situations of irregularity. In so doing, they could draw inspiration from a range of innovative practices implemented in the recent context of the pandemic to ensure the regular status of visitors and migrants on their territories.

Given the grave human rights situation in Myanmar, States in the region should also suspend deportations while the crisis in the country continues and look to safe, non-custodial alternatives to the detention of undocumented migrants. Avoiding immigration detention is also an important practical response in light of the heightened risk of COVID-19 transmission within detention centers.

“Migrants from Myanmar, who have contributed so much to our communities, now need us to stand by them,” Veliko said. “We call on countries in the region to suspend deportations of Myanmar migrants who are undocumented or otherwise in irregular situations, and to provide them with a secure legal status while their country remains in crisis.”

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