Malaysia's health chief warns against discrimination of migrant workers amid coronavirus outbreak at detention centres

Migrant workers being transferred to a detention centre after a raid in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, on May 20, 2020. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

KUALA LUMPUR (REUTERS, THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - New clusters of coronavirus infections have been detected at three detention centres for undocumented migrants in Malaysia in the past few days as the country battles to rein in the virus outbreak.

This comes as Malaysia this month arrested more than 2,000 foreigners for not having permits that allow them to be in the country following raids in areas under lockdown. The centres they are detained in are often crowded, with dozens of migrants packed in a single cell, which makes social distancing impossible.

Health ministry director-general Noor Hisham Abdullah said migrant workers should not be discriminated in terms of healthcare, while stressing immediate medical attention and decontamination procedures at the centres, which hold thousands of detainees.

"Negative sentiments against detainees must not be amplified and must not be a catalyst for discrimination in saving lives", he said in a brief Facebook post on Sunday (May 24).

"As the virus ravages in these centres, we need to enhance the active case detection and isolate and treat those positive cases immediately. Quarantine those close contacts and decontaminate the respective centres.

"The virus knows no boundaries and does not favour any ethnicity and social status. Our whole government and whole community approach should work together to fight the virus," he added.

Malaysia reported 172 new coronavirus cases on Monday, most of them foreigners held at immigration depots, and taking the total number of infections in the country to 7,417.

The Ministry of Health said the number of deaths remained unchanged at 115.

A total of 115 Covid-19 cases have been detected at three detention centres since May 21.

Of that, 60 cases were reported among the 1,400 detainees at the Bukit Jalil centre, while 49 cases were detected at the Semenyih detention centre, which houses around 1,600 detainees.

The Sepang immigration depot registered six cases.

Senior minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob on Monday said Malaysians should not be worried of the outbreak at the centres as the migrants are already confined within the premises.

"Chances for the virus to spread out of the depot is almost non-existent," he said.

He said a total of 4,342 undocumented migrants from the three affected centres would be tested for the virus and those tested positive will be put under quarantine at the Malaysia Agro Exposition Park Serdang (Maeps).

Malaysians who were previously quarantined at Maeps have been transferred to Hospital Sungai Buloh on Sunday.

Dr Noor Hisham has previously said the source of infections at the centres had not been identified.

The migrants were screened before their arrests, but the virus may not have been detected during the incubation period, he said.

Detainees can spend months in the centres before they are deported.

Labour activists have decried the government's move to nab illegal migrants amid the pandemic, fearing that others who are working in Malaysia without documentation may hide from authorities, instead of coming forward voluntarily to be tested.

On the flip side, a section of Malaysians have been pushing for foreign workers to be deported, with some accusing the migrants of carrying the virus and taking jobs away from locals amid the economic slump.

There are some 2.2 million documented migrant workers, and another three million who work in the country illegally.

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