A Malaysian court on Tuesday granted international human rights groups permission to challenge the recent deportation of Myanmar nationals, a major step in a country where the law bars immigration decisions from being questioned in court.
The Malaysian government last month deported 1,086 people it claimed were illegal immigrants on three Myanmar navy ships. It did so 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 Kuala Lumpur High Court on Tuesday 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 progression of the legal case is unlikely to bring back those who have already been deported, but could allow similar challenges against future removals, New Sin Yew, a lawyer for the groups, told Reuters.
“It’s a very important decision because it recognizes the function of non-government organizations 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.
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 as the U.N. 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 U.N.-registered people and 17 minors with at least one parent in Malaysia were on the deportee list.
It was unclear if those individuals were sent back, though 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.