Why do we continue to penalise and criminalise the most vulnerable?

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Photograph: The roads travelled for work - Women Migrant Workers in Singapore and Malaysia by UN Women Gallery/Flickr

Making matters worse, the healthcare systems at detention centres are not equipped to confront or control a coronavirus pandemic, Glorene Das writes.

Why do we continue to penalise and criminalise the most vulnerable in our society? Instilling fear in the communities who are already marginalised and are at the most vulnerable situation – is this not the making of an imperialist state?

“After so long, we feel like we are living in our home country. We face same fear, same harassment, and hunger just because we are different than other humans, we are refugees.” – Nina, Taman Sri Murni, 10.30am

“We were not given food, when we ask Rela for some food, they said we will get a lot of food in detention camp soon.” – Jani, Taman Sri Murni, 10.30am

“If Ramadhan mean struggle, test, challenges, etc… We (Rohingyas) are great examples of those. But I also remember at the end of it, Ramadhan and Shawal mean Victory… We hope none of us give up even if we die eventually.” – Munir, Taman Wilayah, 11am

“I guess we are not human enough for anyone to care or empathise us… Thank you Malaysia for making us realise that again that our life and family has no value.” – Bibi, Taman Wilayah, 11am

The above are some quotes from the members of the refugee communities while being arrested during the raids on the morning of 22 May at different areas of Selayang.

Once again, this is so heart-breaking and painful for many of us. Why do we continue to penalise and criminalise these communities who have the least in our society?

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Yes, the blowout from the coronavirus is pushing the Malaysian government to act with urgency and firmness while defining strategies to control the movement of people. Some policies issued by the government and its ministries are no doubt well-intended, but using arrest and detention or even jail time to punish this vulnerable community for an administrative offence simply violates the basic human rights of a person; in fact, it is more likely to lead to greater harm than good.

We have heard from the affected communities that some are being released after showing their documents, but many are taken to detention and holding centres.

But then again, at these detention holding centres, how can the instructions on social distancing be implemented in forced confinement? Who will monitor this?

Will the Malaysian government @ Immigration Department even care to implement the directives accordingly in the centres? Will they be concerned or not care at all because they are undocumented, for they are deemed as illegal to be treated as criminals?

We are well aware that public health measures and social distancing rules intended to fight the Covid-19 pandemic are absolutely irreconcilable with the reality of detention and imprisonment, as seen in Italy and other countries, during which several inmates/detainees died.

These sad events must draw close attention from the Malaysian government and the public on the application of anti-contagion regulations in overcrowded prisons and detention centres, where a possible bigger outburst of the virus would be catastrophic.

In the eyes of millions of citizens and non-citizens in Malaysia trying to cope with the enormous pressure, strain and anxiety of movement control with isolation, any sort of defilement of the anti-contagion policies is seen as unacceptable. But it is now aimed at the communities of migrants and refugees, for different reasons, one being very obvious with the running away of a few migrants and refugees upon testing positive fearing arrest and detention.

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The risks becoming more present than ever with the ongoing raids, arrests and detention of refugees and migrant workers.

Detention and holding centres are confined quarters, and the constant cycle of people entering and leaving a centre creates a perfect hotbed for spreading the virus to and from communities.

Making matters worse, it is well documented that our detention centre struggle to provide adequate healthcare to detainees. Their healthcare systems are not equipped to confront or control a coronavirus pandemic.

Hasnah Hussin, one of Tenaganita’s community mobilisers says “the whole community are fighting against Covid-19, they are going through a very challenging time in life. My request to the government is to stop the mass arrest and detention because this will really affect the community in long run, both physically and mentally.”

During these times, when we should be working towards sustainable solutions for fighting this pandemic together while providing health services, the Malaysian government with the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Immigration Department seem to be instilling fear in the communities who are already marginalised and are in a most vulnerable situation – is this not clearly the making of an imperialist state?

Glorene A Das is executive director of Tenaganita (Womens Force)

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