Public health first: Call for moratorium on detention of undocumented immigrants

  • Letters
  • Tuesday, 26 May 2020

As at May 23,81 Covid-19-positive cases have been detected in immigration detention centres in Selangor: 60 in Bukit Jalil and 21 in Semenyih. At a press conference held on May 22, Senior Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob stated that the 60 confirmed positive cases in Bukit Jalil have been in the centre before the movement control order (MCO) took effect on March 18, and that all 114 of the Immigration officers on duty have tested negative.

While the government has stated that it will be screening detainees, testing alone is not a foolproof measure of preventing the spread of the virus. If the testing is only done once, there is no guarantee that the person would be free from infection, as the infected person may test negative because the test is unable to detect new exposure to infection within five days.

We are aware that three weeks are sufficient to trigger two to three generations of the spread of the virus. Given the pre-existing cramped conditions in the centres and the pressure that will be placed on the infrastructure with more detainees being brought in, we have grave concerns regarding the government’s ability to prevent the transmission of disease.

Contrary to prevailing logic, the government’s punitive approach toward undocumented migrant workers and refugees during this time of crisis poses a public health risk – for example, some individuals attempted escape from enhanced MCO areas. It also hurts the local economy as many sectors do rely on such workers for their day-to-day operations. It further puts Immigration officers at grave risk of contracting the disease and transmitting it to their family members.

Regrettably, the arrests of undocumented migrant workers by the government at this time has also had another inadvertent impact: It has made immigrant communities distrustful of the health system. This erodes the tremendous efforts made by the Health Ministry to combat this pandemic.

Civil society groups worked hard to be the bridge between immigrant communities and the government to build trust in the health system, which is critical to controlling this outbreak. Upon assurances from the Health Ministry in the early days of the pandemic, they encouraged immigrant and refugee communities to come out for Covid-19 screening voluntarily and without fear. Although non-citizens and the trust they place in a country’s health system may not appear to be a matter of importance from a legal point of view, it is critical from a public health perspective in arresting the spread of disease. Non-health-related ministries need to understand the importance of respecting public health principles while we are in the midst of an outbreak of a disease that has no proven treatment, and that relies critically on prevention of disease transmission to stop spreading.

In this connection, the government must remember that as a member of the global community, the United Nations and the World Health Organisation, it has a higher duty of care towards incarcerated people as well as an obligation to control the spread of the pandemic regionally and globally. The detection of Covid-19 in deported immigrants, as in the case of the immigrants from Myanmar, does not augur well for Malaysia’s international reputation. This is the time for nations to show solidarity and support for battling what is a global pandemic.

Finally, it cannot be over-emphasised that taking care and monitoring the health of large immigrant communities in the country is a way to also protect co-existing local communities.

As such we urgently call upon the government to:

> Immediately stop the arrests of undocumented immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers as well as stateless persons without documents.

> Allow the Health Ministry to take the lead in efforts to control the spread of Covid-19, including among non-citizens, and support the ministry in its efforts to combat the pandemic.

> Invite Suhakam (the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia) to undertake a monitoring visit to detention centres to provide an independent report of the events leading to the detection of Covid-19 cases in them, and to ensure that strong preventive measures are being taken to control disease transmission in the centres.

> Cooperate with international agencies and civil society organisations to increase detainees’ access to hygiene products and other necessary supplies and to allow the UN High Commission on Refugees to identify and register Persons of Concern.

> Develop a coherent and rational migration policy framework that links with an effective blueprint of the country’s human resources needs.

> Preserve the rule of law by taking action against xenophobic hate speech against immigrant communities whose contributions over the years have built this country.


Kuala Lumpur

Note: The People's Health Forum comprises Agora Society Malaysia, Citizens’ Health Initiative, Health Equity Initiatives, Parti Sosialis Malaysia and the Third World Network; it is a space created by NGOs and individuals committed to the principle of Health for All, ie universal healthcare as an entitlement based not on the ability to pay but on the basis of need

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letters , immigrants , Covid-19 , detention


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