Fear, now hunger: Undocumented in the Time of Coronavirus

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Photograph: AMMPO Malaysia, 2020

On the ground, undocumented workers have no extra cash to buy rice, cooking oil and other essentials, Linda Lumayag writes.

Fear is a psychological condition that afflicts us at any level of our waking life. 

But others fear more than, perhaps, the rest of us; and the basis of that fear can be multifaceted and justified. When fear envelops a human person, life stops.

Malaysia’s millions of undocumented persons – from refugees, asylum seekers, economic migrant workers, immigrant spouses and children, and indigenous peoples in border areas to highland and riverine communities – have valid reasons to feel anxious, uncertain, downhearted. And yes, they are also fearful of how to survive in the next few weeks while the movement control order is ongoing. 

Undocumented migrant workers and refugees in Malaysia never run out of fear. They came to Malaysia in the hope of improving their lot and providing food for the family and education for their children back in their homeland.

During pre-coronavirus days, undocumented workers experienced different levels of fear. There is the fear of arrest and detention, heightened by the visibility of police authorities, immigration personnel and Rela volunteers.

One undocumented domestic worker I met years ago shared that while walking along the street in the old part of Kuala Lumpur, she saw two policemen on patrol. She froze and peed in her pants for fear of being arrested. But, thankfully, she was not obviously the target.

The undocumented also feared being laid off from their jobs in the informal economy. Foreign workers are the first to be retrenched in times of downsizing and low “business”. And they are the last to be considered for incentives, promotions or even a pay increase, if at all. They are more likely to be retrenched without any form of protection from the employer.

READ MORE:  Who is responsible for so many undocumented migrants?

It is when they are out of work that extreme fear overwhelms them as they are unable to send money home or to meet their daily needs in Malaysia.

The coronavirus pandemic, however, changes the experience of fear. For the undocumented, it is an all-out war against their being.  Not only will they be out of work, they also cannot find jobs, even on a daily basis. The prospect of hunger becomes real. Restrictions on their mobility to find alternative work characterises their life – as many Malaysians are now experiencing – since the movement control order was declared.

As soon as the order took effect, the Malaysian authorities declared a moratorium on arrests and detentions of the undocumented. To contain the spread of the coronavirus, the authorities made it clear that the undocumented – across different communities – need not fear arrest.  

This was a strategic move of the Perikatan Nasional government to win over the alleged 2,000 Rohingya refugees who are members of the transnational Tablighi Jamaat Muslim missionary movement who attended the Sri Petaling gathering from 27 February to 1 March. This is to encourage the 2,000 refugees to volunteer for Covid-19 screening. This was the first known local cluster that, until the time of writing, accounted for 42% of fatalities in Malaysia.

What limits the current ad hoc system of support for marginalised groups, such as undocumented foreigners, is when they are asked their names, their current place of residence, their contact numbers and other details as they feel this may not work in their favour when the movement control order is lifted.

We all know too that charity groups and civil society organisations are accountable to their benefactors and donors, so then a proper accounting must be in place. The situation results in so much anxiety that the undocumented do not want to expose themselves and would rather suffer in silence.

READ MORE:  Register the undocumented

Undocumented workers have been given repeated assurance that people who give them food packs are not police personnel out to arrest them. They are mostly afraid of asking for assistance, especially from any government institution. If the situation allows it, they would rather ask their fellow nationals who have proper documentation, to find them alternatives.

On the ground, undocumented workers have no extra cash to buy rice, cooking oil and other essentials. Some employers have turned their backs on them and refused to provide them the bare necessities. Live-out undocumented workers who dominate the informal sector like babysitters, shop and restaurant assistants, part-time domestic workers and entertainers are now struggling to survive.

Some undocumented workers have small children who need urgent attention like milk, diapers, and nutritious food. For those separated from their Malaysian spouses or partners, there is no other recourse for them during this difficult time.

They are already thinking of what will happen after the movement control order is lifted, when the possibility of not finding work is the only certainty they can foresee.

What is worrying though are the undocumented groups across nationalities that are difficult to reach, especially when many roads are cordoned off, mobility restricted and friends suffering from the same fate of immobility.

The challenge is still there, especially for the local leadership and elected representatives to widen the assistance network, including the undocumented. Perhaps this is the best time for these elected representatives to not only walk through, but knock on every door in identified depressed communities where undocumented workers are known to reside.

At least one labour-sending country is soon coming up, as pledged, with an aid package for its migrant workers in Malaysia. However, such aid is only meant for documented workers. Though labour-sending countries are trying to reach out to their nationals in Malaysia, helping the undocumented in this time of need is also the responsibility of Malaysia.

READ MORE:  Undocumented migrants: Strangers, ‘moral panics’ and betrayal of trust

Local non-government organisations, faith-based groups, friendship groups, labour groups and nationality-based associations have come full-swing with food packages for migrant workers.

Photograph: AMMPO Malaysia, 2020

For instance, AMMPO, a Filipino domestic workers’ group in Malaysia, responded quickly by collaborating with Our Journey, a migrants’ advocacy group, and a group of like-minded friends in distributing aid. They sent food packages that included eggs, rice, noodles, onions, garlic, sugar and tea for both documented and undocumented workers.

Preparing food packs for migrant workers – Photograph: AMMPO Malaysia, 2020

This heart-warming collaboration on the ground attests to the age-old saying that people in communities express generosity and mutual helpfulness when faced with a common enemy or crisis like this we are now facing.  

While the government machinery softens the edges of fear and anxiety among Malaysian citizens especially the bottom 40% of households, foreign workers, especially the undocumented, are left to their own devices or to the generosity of their employers (assuming employers have not abandoned them).

Labour groups, faith-based groups, nationality-based associations and friendship networks are their only source of basic food to survive through the crisis. These groups also rely on the generosity of their respective Malaysian contacts.

Undocumented workers in the doldrums face fear and even more so, hunger. As the movement restriction order wears on, they are once again encountering fear on a different level. In the past, they could rely on their friends or relatives who work in Malaysia to shoulder their basic necessities while they search for daily-wage work. 

The pandemic, however, has rearranged the fabric of survival strategies that each community now has.    

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