NGO: Include undocumented migrant workers and refugees in Covid-19 response plan


  • Focus
  • Sunday, 22 Mar 2020

MIGRANT workers, refugees and their families need to be included in the national Covid-19 response, says a regional network working on migration and health issues.

"In this emergency situation, migrants working and living in cramped quarters with poor ventilation, fearful of authorities, with limited mobility, language barriers, and fear of losing wages or being laid off, are all factors that contribute to migrants' vulnerability to the pandemic," said Caram Asia, a coalition of 42 member organisations in 18 countries across Asia.

Like everyone else, they face a risk of contracting the coronavirus, which is compounded by their lack of access to healthcare, it added.

And while affected countries take drastic measures such as lockdown and temporary restrictions of movement like Malaysia's movement control order (MCO), Caram Asia stated that there is virtually no chance to use "social distancing" for migrant workers who may be suspected of or diagnosed with Covid-19.

As it pointed out, many live in packed urban areas or crowded slums while some do not even have access to clean water and soap, much less sanitisers or face masks.

The main issue is that migrants are often unaware that they have the same universal healthcare rights as citizens, and some are afraid to come forward, fearing their immigration status and other documentations might be checked by the authorities, Caram Asia said.

"Many migrants cannot access local healthcare facilities in receiving countries, unless they pay premium rates for the service or have existing health insurance," it said, urging the government to include migrants and refugees in their financial and health planning of the pandemic response.

"Testing and treatment for all persons of concern, regardless of documentation status must be given with impartiality," Caram Asia said.

In Malaysia, the high number of undocumented migrant workers and refugees means that it will also be difficult to carry out contact tracing on them during an outbreak.

They also urged governments to make arrangements for safe repatriation of all migrants in Immigration detention centres with technical help and monitoring by International Organisation on Migration (IOM) to reduce the risk of foreigners and locals in the event any detainees contract Covid-19.

UNHCR Malaysia meanwhile said they had been coordinating with the Health Ministry to ensure that all refugee and asylum-seeking communities are included in the government’s national response measures, and to prevent infections from spreading around the communities.

UNHCR associate public health officer Dr Susheela Balasundaram said they had advocated to the Malaysian government to not arrest and detain anyone with an expired UNHCR document; in the process of registration with UNHCR; or are undocumented.

She said that while they have not received official notification on this yet, they have been informed by authorities that during this public health emergency, no refugees or asylum-seekers will be arrested should they present themselves at hospitals for screening and treatment.

She added that UNHCR has not received reports of such arrests taking place.

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