KUALA LUMPUR - The Malaysian government has assured undocumented migrants that they will not be arrested when they turn up to receive the Covid-19 vaccine when the mass vaccination programme kicks off next week.
Minister in charge of immunisation coordination Khairy Jamaluddin said on Wednesday (Feb 17) that the government was looking to "build trust" with the undocumented migrant community in the country and would work with civil society and international organisations to help vaccinate those vulnerable.
"We will work with civil society organisations to assist us in reaching out to undocumented foreigners with the assurance that they will not be detained. They can come forward freely," Mr Khairy, who is also the Science, Technology and Innovation Minister, said during a press briefing.
Malaysia says it has secured enough vaccines to cover more than 80 per cent of its nearly 33 million population. It has also said that it would provide free vaccinations to anyone residing in the country - including migrant workers, refugees and expatriates.
Vaccination remains voluntary and Mr Khairy said that the immunisation task force was formulating a plan on how to approach undocumented migrants and refugees to convince them to take part in the programme without fearing arrest.
Last year, the United Nations criticised Malaysia for rounding up hundreds of undocumented migrants and refugees during a three-month lockdown imposed by the government to deal with Covid-19 pandemic. Those rounded up were sent to detention depots.
The operation took place despite assurances by officials that undocumented migrants would not be arrested if they showed up for Covid-19 testing.
Mr Khairy said on Wednesday that documented foreign workers would be vaccinated through engagement with their respective employers, and the government will work with the UN for those under the purview of the UNHCR, the refugee agency.
Mr Charles Santiago, an opposition lawmaker from the Democratic Action Party, had earlier urged the government to avoid a repeat of last year's incident by granting amnesty to undocumented migrants who show up to be vaccinated.
Malaysia does not formally recognise refugees, so they are also considered as "illegal immigrants".
The country has close to two million registered foreign workers. Another three million foreigners are believed to be living in the country legally.
There are close to 200,000 UNHCR cardholders. The number of undocumented migrants is estimated to be in the millions.
Mr Khairy said that Malaysia was also looking at securing vaccines that require only a single dose, which could be used on those vulnerable such as undocumented migrants who might be reluctant to show up twice for vaccination.
Malaysia is expected to ink a deal to secure the Johnson & Johnson's Covid-19 vaccine, which requires only a single dose, in the coming days.
The first batch of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines will arrive on Feb 21, and the first phase of the vaccination programme is set to be rolled out on Feb 26. Healthcare workers, elected representatives and other groups deemed to be key groups in the frontline of battling Covid-19 will be vaccinated in the first phase, which will conclude in April.
High-risk groups, including those with certain diseases, older than 65 and other medical professionals, will be next followed by the general population from May until February 2022 at the latest.
Malaysia on Thursday (Feb 18) recorded 2,712 new Covid-19 cases to raise the cumulative total to 274,875.
In the same 24-hour period, there were 25 fatalities, bringing the death toll to 1,030.