Malaysia: Mass Arrests of Undocumented Migrants to Ensure they get COVID-19 Jabs

Ray Sherman and Nisha David
Kuala Lumpur
Malaysia: Mass Arrests of Undocumented Migrants to Ensure they get COVID-19 Jabs Home Minister Hamzah Zainudin (center) talks to officials on a visit to a temporary immigration detention center in Beranang, outside Kuala Lumpur, June.3, 2021.
[S. Mahfuz/BenarNews]

Malaysia’s home minister on Thursday defended a policy reversal announced this week to arrest workers who lack valid papers in an effort to get them documented, and then vaccinated, as part of measures to contain surging coronavirus cases.

Malaysia in February had assured undocumented migrants that they would not be arrested when COVID-19 vaccinations began. But on Thursday, Home Minister Hamzah Zainudin said the government had reversed its stance to protect the migrants and citizens from a new wave of the virus.

Migrants without legitimate papers are afraid to register themselves for vaccination, so the government will work with employers and embassies to get documents for those it detains so they can be inoculated, he said.

“We are doing this to protect Malaysians and to help undocumented migrants. We can’t vaccinate those without documents. We want to look after our people,” Zainudin told the media after visiting a temporary detention center in Beranang, outside Kuala Lumpur.

“That’s why when we round up the undocumented migrants – we will work with their employers [if any] and the respective embassies, to obtain the documents to facilitate the vaccination. If they don’t come out to get the vaccine, we [will] go after them.”

Zainudin said that once the undocumented get the requisite papers and are vaccinated, they would have to decide whether they want to keep working in Malaysia, or return to their home countries.

The World Bank estimates that between 1.23 million and 1.46 million undocumented migrants worked in Malaysia in 2017.

Last Saturday, the home minister said that the Immigration Department, along with the police and the National Registration Department, would arrest undocumented migrants and anyone caught flouting lockdown protocols, starting June 1. That’s when a two-week near-total nationwide shutdown began as the country set grim records for new daily infections and virus-related deaths.

Zainudin said the government had already discussed the issue of undocumented migrants’ inoculation with various embassies. It was also setting up temporary detention centers to house those arrested while they wait to be inoculated.

The Southeast Asian country reported 8,209 new infections on Thursday, taking the cumulative caseload to nearly 600,000. With 103 virus-related deaths, pandemic fatalities rose to 3,096.

“If a migrant has an employer, but no valid documents, we will help [him] secure [documents]. Through this operation, we round the migrants up, we will check how long they have been here, and we will help them get documents if they have employers,” Zainudin said.

“Parliamentarians who criticize this crackdown should sponsor the vaccination of the undocumented migrants instead.”

Zainudin was referring to lawmakers and elected officials across party lines who criticized the crackdown as counterproductive. They had noted that in April 2020, COVID-19 clusters were detected in several crowded detention centers for undocumented migrants.

In a statement, a parliamentary group that advocates prison and detention reforms, said it was astonished that the government was planning mass arrests and incarcerations.

“This especially when more than 109 countries have followed the evidence and implemented decongestion measures, and alternatives to incarceration,” said the group, which includes Deputy Speaker Azalina Othman Said, lawmakers from across parties, and others.

“We remain behind despite making initial progress. Have we forgotten the past painful experience of the third wave in September 2020, culminating from prison clusters?”

Another group of opposition lawmakers said the government’s plan to arrest undocumented workers was “embarrassing,” and called out Zainudin on what they termed his “boast” about setting up additional temporary detention centers.

“It is a somewhat foolish and ignorant boast as the clusters created in such centers will endanger Malaysians working there and because of the[ir] regular movement in and out of prison, also their families and the public outside,” this group said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Glorene Das, executive director of Malaysian migrant rights group Tenaganita, said the crackdown on undocumented migrants could jeopardize millions of lives.

“This is the outcome when a ministry overrules all other relevant ministries, when the Immigration Act supersedes all other legislation in the country, and there are no consultative processes in decision-making – ad-hoc policies such as this are issued, putting millions of people at risk,” Das told BenarNews.

“Instead of lamenting about protecting the rights of Malaysians, the [Home] ministry should really work on revamping the immigration system with the right leadership.”


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