The Malaysian government has given the assurance that it will not arrest undocumented migrants who 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 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 the 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 Science, Technology and Innovation Minister, said during a press briefing.
Malaysia says it has secured enough vaccine doses to cover more than 80 per cent of its nearly 33 million population. It has also said that it would provide free vaccination to anyone residing in the country - including migrant workers, refugees and expatriates.
Vaccination remains voluntary, and Mr Khairy said 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 the Covid-19 outbreak. 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.
Malaysia has close to two million registered foreign workers. About three million more foreigners are believed to be living in the country legally. There are close to 200,000 people classified by the UN as refugees, although Malaysia regards them as illegal immigrants. The number of undocumented migrants is estimated to be in the millions.
Mr Khairy said Malaysia was looking at securing vaccines that require only a single dose, and these could be used for vulnerable individuals 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 vaccine, which requires only a single dose, in the coming days.
The first batch of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines will arrive on Sunday, and the first phase of the vaccination programme is set to be rolled out on Feb 26.
Healthcare workers, elected representatives and other groups thought to be key on the front line of battling Covid-19 will be vaccinated in the first phase, which will conclude in April.
High-risk groups, including other medical professionals, those above 65, and those with certain diseases, will be next, followed by the general population from May until next February at the latest.