The Malaysian government’s raids on irregular migrants are deterring people fearful of arrest and deportation from getting vaccinated for Covid-19, Human Rights Watch said today. These actions undermine the government’s repeated international calls for vaccine equity among nations.
On June 23, the coordinator of Malaysia’s Covid-19 vaccination program, Khairy Jamaluddin, criticized vaccine hoarding among industrialized nations and called on the World Bank to “be a strong voice for vaccine equity.” His statement echoed an earlier one by Malaysia’s foreign minister who said, when announcing Malaysia’s candidacy for a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council, that vaccines should be available to all in sufficient quantities and accessible to all without discrimination.
“The threat of arrest and possible deportation of irregular migrants will force an already fearful population further into hiding, leaving them at risk of contracting Covid-19 and spreading it to others,” said Linda Lakhdhir, Asia legal advisor. “If Malaysia wants to be an effective voice for global vaccine equity, it should ensure that all those within its borders can safely access Covid-19 vaccines.”
On February 11, 2021, the government announced that all foreigners residing in the country, including students, refugees, and undocumented migrants, would be eligible for free Covid-19 vaccines. On February 17, Jamaluddin announced that undocumented migrants seeking vaccines would not be arrested.
But on May 29, the Home Ministry reversed that decision, announcing that the Immigration Department would be using a strict lockdown in June to locate and arrest undocumented migrants. On June 3, 2021, Home Minister Hamzah Zainudin asserted that the government was arresting undocumented migrants to “help” them get vaccinated and to “protect Malaysians,” since otherwise it would be “impossible” to vaccinate them as their status could not be tracked.
Since then the Immigration Department has conducted a series of raids, detaining 156 migrant workers in Cyberjaya on June 6, more than 300 migrant workers on June 21, and 72 migrant workers in a Selangor wholesale market on June 26. But detaining people increases the risk of spreading the coronavirus, as was made evident after the authorities rounded up irregular migrants in May 2020, leading to a spike in cases at immigration depots.
Documentation requirements may also be preventing members of some marginalized communities from accessing vaccines. Malaysia requires either a Malaysian identity card or a passport to register for vaccinations on the government website or the heavily promoted MySejahtera telephone application. However, Malaysia has a large population of stateless people, including many people who were born and raised in the country but who, due to the vagaries of Malaysian citizenship law, have been unable to obtain either a Malaysian identity card or a passport. With no passport or Malaysian identity card, these individuals may be unable to register for or obtain vaccines.
Some members of the country’s Indigenous groups also lack formal identification documents. While the authorities are engaging in outreach efforts to remote Indigenous populations, in some instances they are reported to have turned away those who do not have Malaysian identity cards.
The Malaysian authorities should make a concrete commitment that irregular migrants seeking Covid-19 vaccination will not be reported or arrested, and should work with community groups and nongovernmental organizations to reassure the population that they can be vaccinated without fear. The government also should revoke the 2010 circular requiring healthcare workers to report undocumented individuals who seek medical treatment to police and immigration authorities, and ensure that there is a complete firewall between immigration and healthcare officials. They should also translate government public awareness campaigns into the languages commonly spoken by communities at risk.
Malaysia should also ensure that stateless people and others without formal identity documents can get vaccinations by providing alternative registration procedures for people lacking documents, Human Rights Watch said. “The lack of a passport or Malaysian identity card should not block access to getting the Covid-19 vaccine,” Lakhdhir said.
Malaysia has been under a strict movement control order since June 1 due to the rise in Covid-19 cases. While the lockdown was slated to end on June 28, the government has announced that it will continue until new daily case numbers drop below 4,000. The government reported 6,437 new cases on June 29, with 107 deaths. As of June 29, more than 5.4 million people had received their first dose of vaccine, out of a population of nearly 32.8 million.
“Malaysia should make its rhetoric a reality by ensuring vaccine equity for all of those within its borders,” Lakhdhir said. “Failure to do so will not only hamper its efforts to control the Covid-19 pandemic, but also undermine the government’s call for vaccine equity among nations.”