Detention of undocumented migrants will negate ministry’s efforts at Covid-19 control

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The People’s Health Forum is extremely concerned by Senior Minister Ismail Saabri Yaakob’s announcementon 29 April that the government will reverse its previous promise to not arrest any undocumented migrants or refugees during this time of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The earlier announcement by the Ministry of Health that undocumented migrants and refugees should not fear arrest in coming forward for screening and testing was intended to establish mutual trust and voluntary cooperation from this population, as the pandemic teaches us that the virus does not respect race, nationality, ethnicity, religion or documentation status.

According to the senior minister, “the government will place all illegal immigrants identified in areas under an enhanced movement control order (EMCO) at immigration detention centres after the order is lifted” (29 April, The Edge Market).

Not only is this group of people already struggling to sustain their livelihoods on a daily basis, many of them as refugees live with the sequelae of past traumatic experiences, including contending with ongoing feelings of fear, helplessness and even terror on a daily basis.

Most of us, if not all, are fortunate enough to live without such fear. Hard as it might be for us to imagine the effect of the announcement on their physical and mental wellbeing, with the renewed fear of being targeted and arrested once again, it will most definitely increase distrust and drive them and the disease transmission underground.

Inadvertently, such a strategy is contrary to principles of good public health practice and does not bode well for them or the health of Malaysians.

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More than once, the Ministry of Health has reminded the entire nation of the utmost importance of having as many infected persons as possible receive treatment to contain the spread of the virus.

The detention of undocumented migrants will negate the ministry’s hard work and positive efforts in controlling the spread of Covid-19.

Moreover, as the director general of health has urged the people to come together as one, alongside the government, to fight against the disease, the latest decision on detaining undocumented migrants seems even more unfathomable. Clearly, the government cannot and will not be able to do it alone, let alone through harsh and strict measures.

It is high time that everyone, especially those among the various ministries engaged in the control of the disease transmission, is on the same page as the Ministry of Health so that we do not act in any way that negates the tremendous efforts made by our ministry in controlling the disease.

Let us also not forget our healthcare workers who are toiling on the front lines, risking their lives and those of their families for the rest of us, and do our part to make their efforts for all of us count.

We understand the rising and valid concerns over the apparently growing number of undocumented migrants and refugees in the country. This is an outcome of years of lack of a coherent policy framework on migration and the absence of a concrete policy related to refugees, which is a responsibility of the government.

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Rather than arresting the few that are trapped in the enhanced movement control areas, the government should instead work toward developing a coherent policy on migration, employ diplomatic means with the countries of origin to resolve the problem of irregular migration, target human trafficking syndicates, and investigate the corruption that is contributing to the problem.

To make things worse, we also observe that many Malaysian citizens have engaged in hurling baseless accusations, such as the false claim that the Rohingya have monopolised businesses at the Selayang Wholesale Market or the claim that refugees are given RM35 per day as pocket money.

The latter has been refuted by the UN refugee agency, UNHCR (see “UNHCR Denies Fake News On Daily Assistance For All Refugees” published on 29 April, on www.unhcr.org).

There are many more assertions that are just xenophobic and racist insults. It is regrettable that many have turned a blind eye to the actual contributions of this population, as workers and consumers, to our country and economy.

We strongly urge the government to address the issue based on facts and figures and the principle of human rights. Acquiescing to fake news and appeasing populist pressures do not help strengthen the rule of law or democracy in the country.

Singapore made the mistake of excluding the 1.4 million migrant workers in their midst (especially the 300,000 housed in congested dormitory complexes) from their modelling of the Covid-19 spread in Singapore, and has to consequently deal with an uncontrolled outbreak within the workers’ dormitories.

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Let us not add to our own problems of congested migrant workers’ housing by driving undocumented migrants underground, beyond the reach of contact tracing.

We therefore call on the government to suspend the decision to arrest undocumented migrants. Let us get everyone who may have contracted the virus to step forward for timely testing and treatment without fear. Let us truly leave no one behind, like the prime minister has once pledged.

Convenors of the People’s Health Forum:

  • Agora Society Malaysia
  • Citizens’ Health Initiative
  • Health Equity Initiatives
  • Parti Sosialis Malaysia
  • Third World Network

The People’s Health Forum (PHF) is a space created by NGOs and individuals who are committed to the principle of Health for All, ie universal healthcare as an entitlement based not on the ability to pay, but on the basis of need

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