CONCERNS surrounding undocumented refugees and asylum seekers have surfaced as Malaysia attempts to grapple with the spike in coronavirus cases.

In such dire circumstances, the health-security question is one that needs grave attention, given the risks and consequences Malaysia faces today. It had 2,626 coronavirus cases with 37 reported deaths up to March 30.

Of these, 1,207 cases have been linked to the tabligh gathering that was attended by some 16,000 people, including an estimated 2,000 untraceable Rohingya refugees.

This presents a number of problems for the government in carrying out a swift and effective response to the pandemic.

First, the unofficial status of refugees and asylum seekers would likely make them reluctant to come forward for testing. Fear of possible arrests by the authorities and mounting public suspicion serve as a hindrance to the undocumented.

Moreover, contact tracing will be too arduous, if not impossible. Under the Movement Control Order (MCO), contact tracing is a key tool in breaking the chain of transmission. The process necessitates identifying, assessing and monitoring people who have been exposed to the virus.

The absence of documentation compromises such measures, highlighting some of the challenges in trying to track those in marginalised communities. The overall success of the MCO comes down to the strict compliance of people and this is severely undermined by those the government is unable to track.

As highlighted during the World Health Organisation’s press briefing last week, the fight is not over unless we know where each Covid-19 case is. This is why considerable efforts have been made to disseminate information to the 2,000 untraceable refugees and asylum seekers to come forward.

For example, the Health Ministry is working with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and other non-governmental organisations to contact these attendees.

There have also been communication efforts on a broader scale that include public announcements on various media platforms, social media accounts and in well-established newspapers. It is critical that these avoid ‘scare-mongering’ language that will only deter the people from coming forward.

This pandemic shows that there is an urgent need to regularise refugees and asylum seekers into a national database that provides basic documentation and biometric data.

Second, refugees and asylum seekers are in a position of increased ambiguity where healthcare is concerned. Prior to the outbreak, refugees and asylum seekers had little to no access to adequate healthcare nor could they afford it.

However, in present conditions, it seems that the government can no longer disregard healthcare policies on refugees and asylum seekers as the health of every individual is linked to the health of most marginalised. Indeed, the pandemic highlights the need to safeguard the healthcare of such vulnerable groups.

This includes compulsory health screening with the costs borne by companies and individuals that employ them. There should also be stricter measures or penalties for companies which continue to hire undocumented refugees and asylum seekers. This provides a more compelling incentive for refugees to attain proper work rights and documentation.

A comprehensive contingency plan which takes into account more vulnerable groups is essential. While the RM250 billion stimulus package recently announced by the government is encouraging, it falls short in providing aid to the more marginalised groups that, at the very least, should have access to or equal distribution of healthcare services.

While the pandemic beckons fear, insecurity and increased fragmentation, a strong and united front is desperately needed for an effective response. It also means that principles of inclusivity must be adopted to support those who are more vulnerable in such circumstances.

Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin mentioned throughout his speeches that “no one will be left behind” under this government. It is time that refugees and asylum seekers are included in these plans for tangible action to be taken, and better policies to be formulated to tackle the pandemic.

This article first appeared in The New Straits Times on 2 April 2020


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