Safe passage for migrant jabs

In line for immunity: Foreigners lining up for vaccinations at the KLCC PPV. — AZMAN GHANI/The Star

KUALA LUMPUR: The Immigration Department will not interfere in the vaccination programme for migrants nor station its officials near the Covid-19 vaccination sites, said Immigration Department director-general Datuk Khairul Dzaimee Daud.

He made this promise to ensure a safe passage for foreigners in a WhatsApp message to Bernama.

Walk-ins for those facing barriers to vaccines such as irregular migrants and refugees are set to begin tomorrow in Kuala Lumpur and Selangor, but whether it succeeds is still a question.

Vaccinating millions of irregular migrants in Malaysia remains part of the country’s plan to gain control over Covid-19 within its borders.

The ongoing pandemic has impacted the country’s economy, overburdened the healthcare system and virtually made prisoners of its residents for months.

Walk-ins are a successful way to increase vaccination rates, as seen from the “jab first, register later” initiative in Kapit, Sarawak, in June and the United States’ walk-in vaccinations in pharmacies in May.

To date, Malaysia has one of the fastest vaccination rates in the world with 1.35 doses administered per 100 people.

Activists and community leaders have lauded the walk-in programme and expect it to benefit migrants who are in the country legally with valid work permits but cannot register for vaccination under MySejahtera for unknown reasons.

Filipino community leader Liezl (not her real name) said it would be “good especially for those with expired passports and still waiting (to renew their passports) since last year,” she said.

But the same cannot be said for irregular migrants who include the undocumented, those who were documented but became undocumented as well as migrants working under someone else’s permit.

Public health experts and civil society officials are concerned that the walk-in programme may not work, saying most migrants are wary of setting foot into a vaccination centre for fear that they may be arrested despite assurances.

On Sunday, coordinating minister for the National Covid-19 Immunisation Programme (PICK) Khairy Jamaluddin announced that the guidelines to administer vaccines for migrants and refugees had been approved.

Most of the vaccinations, he said, would be handled by non-governmental organisations to give an assurance to the migrants.

Mercy Malaysia president Datuk Dr Ahmad Faizal Perdaus said walk-in vaccinations would be an ideal solution for irregular migrants and refugees as long as the groups, agencies and people responsible for allowing them into the PPV (vaccination centre) and administering the vaccine adhered to the assurance given by the Immigration Department director-general.

However, he said the governmental policy did not always translate well to the people on the ground, who might end up preventing some migrants and refugees from walking in to get their vaccines.

While walk-in vaccinations can be an effective way to increase vaccination rates, experts and activists say the government should also reach out to irregular migrants and refugees through other methods.

Currently, the government’s outreach programmes for the bedridden, the disabled and those living in rural areas include door-to-door and drive-through vaccinations, the use of community centres as PPV and mobile vaccination sites for Malaysians.

Dr Ahmad Faizal said the government should not wait to include irregular migrants and refugees in the outreach programmes scheduled for Phase 4 of PICK.

“I don’t think we should wait until that long. Because migrants are a reservoir of the virus. To a lesser extent, the refugee community,” he said.

Non-Malaysians are over-represented in total infections.

For instance, about 20% of infections recorded so far in July comprised non-citizens despite them being around 10% of the overall population.

There were about 1.7 million foreign workers in Malaysia in 2020, according to the Human Resources Ministry.

The International Organisation for Migration estimated that there was an additional two to four million irregular migrants in 2018.

As of June this year, there were more than 179,000 refugees in Malaysia, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).

Founder and director of Our Journey Sumitha Shaanthinni Kishna said her group planned to provide a mobile vaccination site for migrants as soon as the Covid-19 Immunisation Task Force (CITF) approved it.

While many irregular migrants and refugees may be wary of walk-in vaccinations, some are willing to risk it if it means getting the vaccine sooner rather than later.

An undocumented migrant from Indonesia, only identified as Surya, said his painless experience with the AstraZeneca opt-in programme made him encourage others to get their shot as soon as possible.

“I told them they should go get the shot for themselves. If we get the vaccine, we won’t be so afraid. Yes, life and death are up to God but we must make the effort to be safe,” he said. — Bernama

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