Pictures by Daniel Liew
On March 11, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the COVID-19 pandemic a global outbreak. Soon enough, countries all around the world started closing their borders and Malaysia followed suit not long after. By March 18, Malaysia’s borders were closed, and no one was allowed in or out. For tourists and businessmen, this was a shocker, but for migrants, this was just another day of their lives. The lockdown was put in place in order to get a grip on a new and unprecedented problem but for migrants, this only meant making an old and existing problem worse.
In the following weeks, there was a rise in xenophobic and racist sentiment in the country. Having the virus around meant that the act of turning migrants away that what was once seen as unethical had now been justifiable. Suddenly, it was a good thing that the borders closed because this meant that no foreigners could penetrate our ailing society—either virus or human.
On May 1, contrary to public knowledge that there would be no immigration enforcement during the pandemic, videos surfaced on Twitter of authorities rounding up migrants as though they were cattle waiting in line to be slaughtered. This incited uproar from citizens and on May 3, the #MigranJugaManusia online protests were consequently held. On Twitter, the protest managed to become a trending topic and as the nature of protests go, some chimed in with support and others revelled at the arrests of the migrants. As of May 22nd, several more mass arrests have happened, and people are still actively criticising the detention efforts that migrants are facing.
Reflecting on what UN experts have called a hate campaign1, it’s important to remember Malaysia has had a long history with migrant workers and it’s not a particularly peachy one. Migrants that have been held in Malaysian detention centres have reported abuse of various forms from authorities in charge2. These mass arrests have added another risk to the well-being of migrants—a deadly virus. Human rights group, Amnesty International Malaysia3, is one of the leading voices for the #MigranJugaManusia movement and insists that there are alternative ways that do not involve rounding up migrants and subjecting them further to exposure of the virus.
The hate directed towards migrants is nothing but a bullet shot far off bullseye. Azizah Kassim and Ragayah Haji Mat Zin in their article4 inspect further on migration in Malaysia and tell us to consider institutionalised missing links instead. Why do migrants come here in the first place? They are in search of a better life far from discrimination, oppression and violence. Some are enticed by employment agencies that promise them jobs in Malaysia equipped with legal documents only to come and be stranded with nowhere to go and nothing in their possession except a broken dream. The presence of systemic corruption such as these means that migrants are victims and not the demonised troublemakers they are made to be.
The crackdown on migrant populations will only add fuel to the fire in either one of two ways.
Firstly, police raids are likely to push migrants into hiding, consequently obstructing their access to medical care for symptoms of coronavirus. This predicted response from the migrant community would counteract the Malaysian authorities’ intentions of containing the spread of the virus. Migrants in hiding would have their health problems unattended to, thus increasing the risks of viral transmission amongst themselves and to “legal” dwellers on Malaysian soil.
Second, migrants who are unfortunate enough to be seized would be confined in squalor and overcrowded detainment centres. These living conditions encourage transmission rates. Clinically vulnerable groups such as the elderly and sick would suffer the worst health outcomes. Precautionary measures such as social distancing and good hygiene would be impossible to maintain.
However, there is evidence that authorities do not see any causes of concern. Authorities overseeing the raids have been shown wearing full PPE, yet the detainees were only given surgical masks to protect themselves5. The stark contrast in protection highlights a disturbing imbalance in health rights. If the needs of the detainees aren’t being met, we can only imagine what the health outcomes intended for them would be. This raises the question, who is allowed protection from the pandemic?
Supporters of government raids claim that migrants are perpetrators of the outbreak in Malaysia. Their argument is that infected migrants are entering the country, disseminating their respiratory fluids willy-nilly, a strain on Malaysia’s resources to contain the virus. What that argument fails to realise is that migrant and refugee populations are already predisposed to communicable diseases such as COVID-19. Their heightened vulnerability is attributed to a combination of insecure housing, employment, finances, and social connections necessary for healthy living conditions.
Human Rights Watch recommends that detainment centers gradually reduce their number of detainees by relocating individuals with lower health risks6. In the case of Malaysia, where the conditions of these centres are less than hospitable, identifying and releasing current detainees may be challenging. The least the government can do for those in detainment is to thoroughly inspect and improve their living conditions. Sabah’s MCA Women’s Chief Pamela Yong urges detention centres to adhere to the same SOP measures as private and business premises7.
While there remains challenges to fix the damage that has already been inflicted, the lives of migrants who have not been arrested can still be protected. First and foremost, the government must cease further mass raids and arrests. Following that, the government should ensure that the health rights granted to migrants during this time are equal to that of Malaysian citizens. Furthermore, migrants with their own accommodation should be allowed to self-isolate within them.
We do acknowledge that many migrants live in impoverished conditions, some may even be destitute. Our government needs to ensure that homeless migrants are not neglected from public health interventions. As mentioned earlier, leaving migrants unaccounted for will only make it harder to curb the pandemic.
Other countries have thought creatively to address the health of vulnerable populations; in the United Kingdom, rough sleepers have been temporarily relocated to unused hotels. Malaysia has the potential to follow suit; there are a total of 190 operating hotels that have been repurposed as quarantine centres in Malaysia, with more to come8.
If possible, as many migrants as possible should be housed in these centres without having to pay fees. With secured shelter and health services, these people would have a higher fighting chance against the virus than they would have in detainment. Additionally, these conditions would certainly be more humane, recognising individual’s needs for privacy and autonomy.
We were right to protest the mass raids and arrests of these migrants. On May 21st, the Health Ministry reported a detention centre cluster of the disease. The question now lies in what will happen next.
Sociological enquiries of medical knowledge have found that knowledge surrounding diseases are inherently formed with aid from the political, social and cultural environment that surrounds it9. The social origins of medical knowledge also mean that the stigmas we attach onto the virus (unwanted, unwelcome) that also happen to be some of the stigmas surrounding migrants will fundamentally affect the way we treat them which is a big red flag regarding ethnicity-based health interventions (which is a polite way of saying raid and arrest of migrants). Now that these migrants are COVID-19 positive, will they receive the same health care privileges as their “legal” counterparts?
An interesting discourse about the politicisation of the pandemic has also arised. It has mostly been about Trump and China10 but let’s try and talk about it in the context of back home. The mass raids and arrests and online protests that followed are a good example of politicising the pandemic. How can there not be a politicisation when vulnerable lives are at risk? When the elite get away with breaking restrictions that their low-income parallels are forced to suffer huge consequences from? The act of closing borders that followed the outbreak is also another thing that is implicitly political because that’s exactly what borders are. Nothing but political lines drawn on a map. Trying to talk about the pandemic without politicising it is impossible.
Migrants are human too and it’s hard to fathom how a large majority of Malaysians disagree. To conclude, it is possible that migrant and citizen health rights are not mutually exclusive. It is more sustainable health-wise to put an end to future racially targeted interventions. Once the shroud of uncertainty upon us is lifted, we hope for a new normal where migrants are treated with dignity and compassion.