Malaysia's tough stance on illegal migrants 'worsens Covid-19 crisis'

Crackdown will drive them underground, undermine efforts to curb spread: Observers

The Malaysian government's hard stance against illegal immigrants could worsen the country's Covid-19 crisis as many may go into hiding, raising the risk of new clusters forming.

The authorities had in recent weeks conducted raids which saw hundreds of undocumented immigrants being rounded up.

The Immigration Department was also criticised for sharing recently a poster on its Twitter account that portrays Rohingya refugees as a threat. This sparked criticisms from rights groups, which said it could trigger hatred and violence towards the refugees from Myanmar.

The post has since been taken down, but it has left many fuming and questioning the government's promise to inoculate the group and other undocumented immigrants - as part of its national vaccination programme - and not arrest them after that. Illegal immigrants in Malaysia are said to number around three million.

"Any crackdown will drive these illegal immigrants underground and it will be very difficult to reach them for whatever purpose, including control of infectious diseases and vaccination," Professor Awang Bulgiba Awang Mahmud, chairman of the government's Covid-19 Epidemiological Analysis and Strategies Taskforce, told The Sunday Times.

"This means the task of vaccinating enough people to achieve herd immunity in this pandemic will be more difficult. It is possible only if the vaccine prevents transmission and a substantial portion of the entire population, not just Malaysians, have been vaccinated. So to achieve herd immunity, we must include illegal immigrants in the equation too," he added.

The Malaysian Advisory Group on Myanmar echoed the same sentiment, adding that the government's tough stance would endanger the public.

"Despite alarm expressed by various non-governmental organisations and even politicians, the authorities responsible have dug their heels in and doubled down. These punitive measures will undermine efforts to contain the spread of Covid-19, thereby endangering the Malaysian public," it said in a statement yesterday.

Although some refugees carry a card from the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR and work informally in Malaysia, the government does not formally recognise them, which means they are listed as undocumented immigrants.

There is also a raging debate in the country on whether illegal immigrants should be deported to reduce the risk of Covid-19 infections.

Home Minister Hamzah Zainudin said in late May that law enforcers were prepared to make more arrests of those found flouting Covid-19 health protocols, including undocumented immigrants caught trying to enter the country by sea and other illegal routes. He also planned joint inspections of immigrant settlements nationwide.

But similar operations held last year led to overcrowding at detention depots, where Covid-19 clusters later emerged. This then became the subject of a controversial Al-Jazeera documentary.

Datuk Seri Hamzah's statement also went against what Mr Khairy Jamaluddin, the Science, Technology and Innovation Minister, said in February - that undocumented foreigners will not be arrested when they come forward for Covid-19 vaccinations.

On June 15, Mr Hamzah called the UNHCR "insincere" about wanting to help its 178,715 cardholders get vaccinated after he claimed the agency would give him their details only if they are not arrested.

The allegation was denied by the global rights group, which said that while it calls on the government not to arrest or detain refugees and asylum seekers, it did not set this "as a condition to cooperation and sharing of refugee population data for the purposes of vaccination planning".

It said in a statement on June 15: "For many months now, UNHCR has already been sharing with the government refugee population data as far as the district level, and providing technical input to the planning where required.

"To counter the spread of Covid-19, it is paramount that any person on the territory of Malaysia, regardless of their document status, has access to medical attention, testing and vaccination."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 20, 2021, with the headline 'Malaysia's tough stance on illegal migrants 'worsens Covid-19 crisis''. Subscribe