Lawyers for Liberty refers to the home minister’s statement on 3 June where he insisted that the government is rounding up migrants to vaccinate them for Covid-19.
Upon reading his statement, even though the home minister claims the mass operation is to get migrants documented for vaccination, there has been no assurance that they would not be subjected to punitive or criminal action after that. The fear that these migrants would later be sent to detention centres, causing detention facilities to be overcrowded, remains a valid concern.
The government has been repeatedly told that a mass incarceration of migrants could in fact undermine efforts to combat the spread of Covid. Similar views were even echoed by the Malaysian UN office to the Ministry of Home Affairs, but it has obviously been ignored.
Even if what the home minister disclosed is true, and the objective is to ensure vaccination among undocumented migrants, it begets the question why it would be necessary to detain them in the first place. The fact is, it is logistically impossible for the government to incarcerate millions of undocumented migrants in detention facilities. Doing so could create numerous Covid clusters that would certainly spill over to the public, creating higher infection rates, hospitalisation and deaths.
It is an indisputable fact that many undocumented migrants are victims of unscrupulous employers. They should not be treated as criminals and be detained at detention centres that run the risk of overcrowding, potentially exposing them to Covid infections.
The mass operation would also adversely impact asylum seekers and refugees, who could not be documented. They should not be subjected to such degrading treatment from the government and must be treated with the decency they deserve.
The better way is for government to work together with the UN refugee agency UNHCR, civil society groups and grassroots organisations that have ties with the migrant community to facilitate the vaccination process. This would rid the necessity of creating satellite detention centres or deploying enforcement authorities to detain undocumented migrants.
We strongly urge the government to rethink its decision to conduct this mass operation against undocumented migrants. Penal action is not the panacea to the pandemic, and it could instead negatively affect Malaysia’s fight against Covid.
Zaid Malek is coordinator of Lawyers for Liberty