Public health first: Call for moratorium on detention of undocumented immigrants

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Sketch by Wong Soak Koon

The People’s Health Forum expresses its deepest regret that the federal government has failed to pay heed to various civil society groups calling for a moratorium on actions against undocumented migrants for at least six months.

The People’s Health Forum had sent a memorandum to the prime minister on 20 March 2020 on this exact issue, and another statement on 1 May expressing deep concern and repeating the call to the government to desist from pursuing the crackdown on undocumented migrant workers.

Three weeks later (as of 23 May) 60 and 21 positive Covid-19 cases have been detected in the immigration detention centres in Bukit Jalil and Semenyih, respectively.

In the press conference held by Senior Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob on 22 May, he stated that the 60 confirmed positive cases in Bukit Jalil had been in detention in the centre even before the movement control order took effect and that all 114 of the immigration officers on duty had tested negative.

Based on the above statements which were made public and the absence of information on case zero in the centres, the supposition that the infection started in both detention centres before the movement control order is ambiguous and arguable.

In view of the foregoing circumstances and limited information provided, it could well be likely that the infection source might have been from the newer detainees mixing with the detainees who had been in detention prior to the movement control order.

The government has been forewarned on the implications of crackdown measures during this time of crisis and outbreak, ie new outbreaks of disease and more critically, disease transmission being driven underground.

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While the government has stated that it will be screening detainees in the detention centres, testing alone is not a foolproof measure to prevent the spread of the disease.

If the testing is only done once, there is no guarantee that the person would be free from infection as the infected person may test negative because the test is unable to detect new exposure to infection within five days.

We are aware that three weeks are already sufficient to trigger two to three generations of spread from the virus.

Given pre-existing cramped conditions in the centres and pressure that will be put on the infrastructure with more detainees being brought in, there are grave concerns regarding the government’s ability to ensure that robust preventive measures can be established in such conditions to prevent the transmission of disease. These include the salience of social distancing and limitations posed to environmental non-pharmaceutical interventions within cramped and overcrowded conditions.

In the absence of robust preventive measures, a high number of infections among the detainees is highly likely, mirroring what happened in Singapore.

Contrary to prevailing logic, the government’s punitive approach toward undocumented migrants and refugees during this time of crisis poses a public health risk (eg some individuals attempted to escape from the enhanced movement control order areas).

It also hurts the local economy as many sectors do rely on such workers for their day-to-day operations.

It further puts immigration detention officers at grave risk of contracting the disease, with their potential infection posing health risks to their family members too.

Regrettably, the arrests of undocumented migrants by the government at this time has also had another inadvertent impact in terms of creating a deficit of trust in the health system among the migrant communities. It erodes the impact of the tremendous efforts put in by the Ministry of Health in combating this pandemic.

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Civil society groups worked hard to be the bridge between the migrant communities and the government to build trust in the health system which is critical to controlling this outbreak. Upon assurance of the Ministry of Health in the early days of the pandemic, they encouraged migrant and refugee communities to come out for Covid-19 screening voluntarily and without fear.

Although non-citizens and the trust they place in the health system may not appear to be a matter of importance from a legal point of view, it is critical from a public health point of view in arresting the spread of disease.

Non-health related ministries need to understand the importance of respecting public health principles, especially during this time of the outbreak of a disease which has no proven treatment and which relies critically on prevention of disease transmission.

In this connection, the government must remember that as a member of the global community, the UN and the World Health Organization (WHO), it has a higher duty of care towards people in incarceration and an obligation to control the spread of the pandemic regionally and globally.

The detection of Covid-19 in deported migrants, as in the case of the migrants from Myanmar, does not augur well for Malaysia’s reputation in this regard.

Actions of deportation of migrants from Malaysia at this time also raise concern as migrant-sending countries such as Nepal have closed their borders to prevent the ravaging of their fragile health systems by the pandemic.

This is the time for states and people to show solidarity and support for what is a global pandemic.

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Finally, it cannot be overemphasised that taking care and monitoring the health of large migrant communities in the country is a way of protecting coexisting local communities as well.

As such, we urgently call upon the government to:

  • Immediately stop the arrests of undocumented migrants, refugees, asylum seekers and stateless persons without documents
  • Allow the Ministry of Health to take lead on the control of transmission of Covid-19, including for non-citizens, and support the Ministry of Health in its efforts in combating the pandemic
  • Invite Suhakam to undertake a monitoring visit to detention centres to provide an independent report of the events leading to the detection of Covid-19 cases in immigration detention centres and to ensure that strong preventive measures are being undertaken to control disease transmission in immigration detention centres
  • Cooperate with international agencies and civil society organisations to increase access to hygiene products and other necessary supplies to detainees and to allow the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to identify and register persons of concern
  • Develop a coherent and rational migration policy framework that links with an effective blueprint of the country’s human resource needs
  • To preserve the rule of law, take action against xenophobic hate speech against migrant communities whose contributions over the years have built this country

Convenors of the People’s Health Forum:

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