Malaysian authorities use COVID-19 to round up thousands of migrant workers and refugees

Migrant workers and refugees rounded up in a 'COVID-19 raid' in Malaysia.

More than 2000 people have been rounded up by Malaysian authorities since May 1, in a series of sweeps through communities with high undocumented migrant worker and refugee populations, under the pretext of combatting COVID-19.

However, the consequent overcrowding of immigration detention centres has caused COVID-19 infections to flare up.

The raids have been condemned by refugee and migrant worker advocacy groups, the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (SUHAKAM) and Felipe González Morales, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants.

SUHAKAM said the raids would make it harder to fight COVID-19 because these “vulnerable people” would now be less likely to come forward to be tested and treated.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimated there were 2–4 million undocumented migrant workers in Malaysia in 2018, in addition to more than 2 million documented migrant workers.

Among the undocumented are nearly 180,000 refugees and asylum seekers registered with the UN refugee agency (UNHCR). However, because Malaysia is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, they are treated as “illegal immigrants”.

Malaysian authorities have barred the UNHCR from accessing detention centres since August last year.

The refugees and asylum seekers do not have the right to work or to access public healthcare, and their children cannot access public schooling. They also face super-exploitation at the hands of unscrupulous bosses, in a well-organised and widespread system that authorities are bribed to accommodate.

The raids followed a nasty propaganda campaign against Rohingya refugees who fled from Burma (Myanmar). This campaign, which included fake videos showing Rohingya “demanding” citizenship and other rights, inspired a wave of hate speech and threats of violence and rape against these refugees. The hate campaign exploded after the Malaysian government decided in April to turn back refugee boats.

It also followed the spike in COVID-19 infections among migrant workers in neighbouring Singapore. Now migrant workers and refugees in Malaysia are being blamed for spreading the virus.

This takes place amidst the economic losses suffered by all workers and small businesses under the pandemic Movement Control Order (MCO) lockdown that has been in force since mid-March. 

Socialist Party of Malaysia (PSM) spokesperson on migrant workers' rights Rani Rasiah told Green Left the authorities say they will test the detained migrants for COVID-19 then deport them to their home countries.

However, UN Special Rapporteur Morales warned: “If migrants are deported without assessing every case individually, the government may effectively put people at risk of torture and other ill-treatment in their countries of origin.

“This would breach the fundamental non-refoulement principle.”

Rasiah added that the raids were not part of any real strategy to address the problems of undocumented workers in the country, their super-exploitation and the poor conditions they are forced to live in, which puts them at risk of infection.

“The raids have thrown light on their terrible living conditions, the poor sanitation, and the cramped spaces that don’t allow social distancing ... fertile ground for the virus to spread fast. The current daily figures of new cases comprise largely of migrants.

“There is now pressure on employers to implement the amendments to the Workers’ Minimum Standards of Housing and Amenities Act that was passed in July last year. The new rules on housing for migrant workers were due for implementation at the end of last month, but have been postponed to three months later after lobbying by bosses.”

Politicians who have ruled the country have always played race politics, Rasiah explained.

“All Malaysians have grown up exposed to this. It has become the way we see things — along racial lines.”

This works out worse for migrants as they are widely perceived to have taken away jobs, and lowered workers' bargaining power.

The PSM says the government should enact a comprehensive policy on all aspects of labour migration and refugees.

“The private sector should stay out of the recruitment and management of migrant labour, which should come under the government,” Rasiah explained. “Recruitment should be based on manpower requirements and migrant workers should have access to redress in all situations, decent housing and access to healthcare.

“This should be paid from a levy to be borne by employers.”

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