Distrust among refugee and migrant communities after a year of mixed messages could hamper efforts to curb a spiralling COVID-19 pandemic.
In a bid to speed up the process and achieve herd immunity more quickly, it has recently made efforts to encourage migrants and refugees to come forward for the vaccine.
Mohammad Zubair, a Rohingya refugee in Kuala Lumpur, told Al Jazeera that while he registered himself for the jab in early August, he is still trying to make up his mind whether to take his wife when the government opens a walk-in centre for undocumented migrants next week because she has not yet been recognised as a refugee and he fears she will be arrested.
“If I take her for the vaccine, the police might stop us on the way,” he said. “I can take her under one condition: if the government will assure that undocumented persons can get the vaccine and not be arrested on the way or at the vaccination centre.”
Al Jazeera has used a pseudonym for Mohammad Zubair and the other refugees interviewed for this article due to their fears of reprisals.
When the vaccine rollout began in late February, Malaysia sought to build trust with the millions of migrants who live and work in the country in order to encourage them to get the vaccine. But in June, authorities conducted a fresh wave of immigration arrests.
Now, the government appears to be offering an olive branch again. But for refugees like Mohammad Zubair, the current situation bears unwelcome similarities to the early months of the pandemic.
Back in March 2020, Ismail Sabri Yaakob, Malaysia’s defence minister and now deputy prime minister, said the government would not arrest anyone who sought COVID-19 testing or treatment based on their immigration status. But then the authorities conducted a series of raids on apartments under coronavirus lockdown and work sites and Ismail Sabri announced that the amnesty period had expired. The crackdown resulted in the arrests of more than 2,000 people and COVID-19 outbreaks in immigration detention centres.
Khairy Jamaluddin, the science minister who leads the vaccination programme, has stressed since the vaccine rollout began that immigration status should be no barrier to access.
“[Undocumented migrants] can come forward freely and they will be confident that the government will vaccinate them and not detain them,” Khairy told the media on February 17. “We must build trust in these communities so they can come forward willingly and freely so that we can administer the vaccines.”
But the following months have been less reassuring.
On May 29, Home Minister Hamzah Zainudin said Malaysia would “round up” undocumented migrants in an effort to “help” them and “protect Malaysians.”
“If [undocumented migrants] don’t come out to get the vaccine, we [will] go after them,” he told the media, adding that authorities would then work with employers and embassies to get people documented for the purposes of vaccination.
In June, more than 500 people were picked up in immigration raids, including on June 26, when 39 people holding identification from the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) were also among those arrested in a raid on a wholesale market.
The same month, the government began setting up temporary detention centres to house newly arrested migrants while they awaited inoculation, according to BenarNews, an online news service affiliated with Radio Free Asia.
Dirk van der Tak, head of mission with Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres or MSF) in Malaysia, says that arresting migrants for the purposes of vaccination is “counterproductive”.
Research conducted by MSF in May and June of this year found that many migrants, including refugees and asylum seekers, were willing to come forward for the vaccine as long as it was safely accessible and free.
“The crackdown on undocumented migrants must stop as it deters health-seeking behaviour, including coming forward for vaccination,” he said.
In addition to the 1.7 million documented foreign workers in Malaysia who were counted under the Human Resources Ministry in 2020, Malaysia is also thought to be home to between two and four million undocumented migrants, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). At the end of June 2021, there were also nearly 180,000 refugees, mostly from Myanmar, registered with the UNHCR.
Malaysia is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention and does not recognise refugees under its legal system. Those registered with UNHCR are generally spared arrest, but refugee community groups estimate that tens of thousands of people are awaiting registration, a process that can take years. While they wait for that recognition they are at risk of arrest as undocumented migrants.
‘Immgration interrogation centre’
Mohammad Zubair, whose wife and seven-year-old daughter arrived in Malaysia in April 2019 and are awaiting UNHCR registration, told Al Jazeera that fearing their arrest, he has not allowed them to leave their flat since March 2020 when the country imposed its first, and most strict, lockdown. He also only goes out for his job: sweeping or cutting grass.
The pandemic has seen increased hostility towards migrants and refugees, and particularly Rohingya who have for years seen mostly Muslim Malaysia as a place of refuge.
In early 2020, citing coronavirus prevention efforts, authorities pushed back boats carrying Rohingya asylum-seekers and detained the passengers of other boats for illegal entry. In April 2020, the home minister said that Rohingya had no status, rights or basis to make demands on the Malaysian government and two months later, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin said the stress of the pandemic meant the country could “no longer take more” Rohingya.
Now, with the pandemic significantly worse, anti-foreigner and anti-Rohingya rhetoric is resurfacing.
This June, the home minister and immigration director-general visited two apartment complexes in Penang state to check on the number of foreigners, and particularly Rohingya, following complaints from residents who claimed they were “dirty”, “rowdy” and “pushing drugs”. The home minister also posted on his official Facebook page that he had ordered authorities to monitor areas where large numbers of foreigners were living “to maintain public peace”.
Also in June, the Immigration Department shared a poster on its official Facebook page with the heading “Ethnic Rohingya migrants, your arrival is unwelcome,” accompanied by an image of gun-wielding law enforcement personnel and boats of migrants. After an outcry, it was removed.
Naw Naw, a UNHCR-registered refugee from Myanmar’s Kachin State, told Al Jazeera his experience of getting his first dose of the vaccine at Kuala Lumpur’s National Stadium in July had been harrowing.
According to his account, a member of Malaysia’s paramilitary volunteer corps known as RELA, the group’s Malay acronym, approached him while he was taking out his UNHCR identification paper to fill out the consent form for the vaccine. RELA is part of the Home Ministry and is tasked with “tackling illegal immigrants,” according to the government website; volunteers have also been deployed to vaccination sites to help ensure physical distancing.
“[The RELA member] talked to me loudly in the crowd. I felt like he was treating me like a criminal and shaming me in public,” said Naw Naw. “He didn’t understand my UN letter … he asked me in Malay, ‘How did you get into our country without a passport?’”
After examining Naw Naw’s UNHCR identification paper, which was written in both Malay and English, the RELA member consulted with his superiors and then took Naw Naw into a separate room, where policemen were checking the documents of a handful of other people. After the policemen discussed Naw Naw’s case with a senior officer, Naw Naw was finally allowed to proceed with getting the vaccine.
He said that the experience left him feeling like he was “at an immigration interrogation centre”.
“I was really concerned about whether I might be arrested,” he said. “Although I have a UN document, they still investigated me, so how will undocumented people dare to go for the vaccine?”
Al Jazeera contacted Khairy’s press secretary for clarification about the government’s policy towards vaccines for undocumented migrants, the ways migrants’ data will be used, and the presence of police, immigration officers and RELA personnel at vaccination centres but was told the minister was not available to comment.
‘Fear and distrust’
Last weekend, Malaysia’s COVID-19 taskforce announced a schedule for walk-in vaccinations at nine locations, of which one, the National Stadium, will be designated for migrants, including the undocumented, from August 9.
State media Bernama reported that the Immigration Department would not interfere with the vaccination programme for migrants or station its officials near vaccination sites in order to ensure a “safe passage for foreigners”.
“Vaccinating millions of irregular migrants in Malaysia remains part of the country’s plan to gain control over COVID-19 within its borders,” Bernama said.
But regardless of official policy, fear of arrest when going for the vaccine is pervasive, especially among people who lack documentation, a volunteer who helped people from his Kachin refugee and asylum-seeking community to register for the vaccine told Al Jazeera.
Their concern has been compounded by the UNCHR’s suspension of its services to renew refugee identification cards during lockdown periods which began in March 2020, which has left many unable to renew expired documents.
Another worry for some asylum seekers, said the community volunteer, is that people must provide their name and address in order for their vaccine status to be recorded and some fear the authorities could use the information to later raid their homes.
Van der Tak of MSF cautions that the fears that have deepened among migrant populations over the course of the pandemic will be hard to overcome and that the mixed messaging which Malaysia has given on migrants may serve as an ongoing barrier to vaccine access.
He is urging Malaysia to unequivocally end all policies which mandate the arrest of migrants and refugees seeking healthcare services, including a 20-year-old policy known as Circular 10/2001 which requires that government healthcare workers report undocumented migrants to the police and immigration services.
“Fear and distrust in addition to unfamiliarity with existing vaccination registration pathways … hamper the country’s COVID-19 response at a time where access to healthcare for all is crucial to overcome the pandemic,” he said.