Health Equity Initiatives (HEI) is deeply concerned by media reports stating that the Immigration Department of Malaysia (JIM) will be detaining undocumented migrants during the two-week lockdown period from 1 June to 14 June 2021.
This announcement runs contrary to earlier promises made by the government on several occasions not to arrest or detain undocumented migrants coming forward for COVID-19 screening, testing, or vaccinations. One should recall that such pledges were made to regain the eroding trust and confidence of these ostracized communities towards the health system to curb the rising COVID-19 infections in Malaysia.
In the press conference held by the Home Minister, he stated that the Prisons Department is ready to allocate additional detention centres for detainees. With the daily cases reaching all-time highs, the proposed actions are counterintuitive to public health advice and threaten the tremendous efforts made by the front liners and others, especially the Ministry of Health, to control this pandemic. As a convening member of the People’s Health Forum, HEI has previously released statements cautioning of the far-reaching implications of crackdowns, namely, forming new clusters and, importantly, risks of disease transmission driving these vulnerable populations underground. Indeed, the attempted escapes of individuals in EMCO areas and detection of confirmed positive cases in immigration detention centres in the past demonstrate the validity of the above concerns.
Additionally, the government should consider the increased health and safety risks to immigration officers due to detention centres presenting conditions that may increase the transmission of the disease. This may also put their family members at risk of acquiring COVID and jeopardize many Malaysians’ health and wellbeing. As the health system struggles with shortages of infrastructure, any increase in numbers would put avoidable stress on the struggling health system.
HEI holds extreme concerns that these actions by the Home Ministry will further exacerbate the ongoing fear, despair, and distress these vulnerable populations face daily. Since the start of the pandemic, a deepening sense of helplessness, hopelessness, and desperation were consistent in reports across refugee communities as they grappled with the loss of employment, food insecurity and hunger, housing insecurity as many got evicted, and fear of arrest and detention. More so, when experienced in addition to the sequelae of their traumatic experiences in their countries of origin, many experienced an exacerbation of symptoms of Posttraumatic Stress Disorders (PTSD), Depression and Anxiety.
We acknowledge the government’s role in protecting the country’s territorial integrity and the need to regulate migration, including collecting taxes. This is best achieved through a currently lacking coherent migration policy aligning with the country’s human resource needs. Concerning refugees, it is also essential that we address the causes of displacement in the region. While we have expressed the much-needed and much-justified outrage at the Israeli attacks on the Palestinians, our response to the brutal assault of the army on innocent civilians in our region in Myanmar has not been as robust. Until and unless we look at these issues holistically and comprehensively, our piecemeal efforts at managing irregular migration will not bring us the required results.
While the above issues are significant, the public health imperative to control the surge in infections and secure Malaysians’ health and wellbeing requires us to explore strategies to bring everyone in the country, including undocumented migrants, into our strategy to combat the pandemic. The health and safety of all, citizens and non-citizens alike, should be continuously protected and upheld during this period, and arrests and detention are not an appropriate measure to be taken in these circumstances. We thus urgently call on the Malaysian government to impose a moratorium on the arrests and detention of undocumented immigrants.