KUALA LUMPUR, June 1 — Home Minister Datuk Seri Hamzah Zainudin’s recent announcement that the Immigration Department will begin cracking down on undocumented migrants in these two weeks even as Malaysia returns to a “total lockdown” today has health and worker rights advocates very worried.
Three advocates described the crackdown as misplaced priorities when government resources, especially the health and security sectors, are being stretched to their limits.
“Why would this government go after vulnerable people especially at the time of a pandemic, where we are seeing the number of cases going up every day?” asked Mahi Ramakrishnan, a filmmaker as well as a human rights and social activist.
She recalled the rapid spread of the disease in detention centres last year when the government reneged on its promise not to arrest and deport migrant workers and refugees who volunteered for Covid-19 vaccination.
She had thought the government would have learnt from its past experience and understood the need for an accessible and comprehensive healthcare policy for all “Malaysians, migrants, refugees and stateless persons”.
“What would it take the home minister to understand that no one is safe until everyone is?” Mahi told Malay Mail when contacted.
She noted that more communities have been clamouring for aid in the prolonged pandemic. Those in small and medium enterprises (SMEs) have had to pare down their operations to the bare minimum. Those who were already in the bottom income levels and living on the fringes of society are at their wits end with job losses and pay cuts.
“I dread to think how this total lockdown would pan out for them. And now we will also have the immigration hunting down undocumented migrant workers?
“The home minister spoke about satellite prisons and extra lock-ups to hold them. The money spent on this could have been used to keep SMEs in business and given as cash assistance to poor communities. I would really like to know who is advising the home minister,” Mahi said.
Glorene A. Dass, the executive director of women and migrants’ rights advocacy group Tenaganita, said the Covid-19 virus does not discriminate and neither should the government.
“When we are grappling with such a serious health pandemic situation in the country, trying very hard to implement the national immunisation programme proposed for all, the Home Ministry destroys it all with the crackdown operations. It’s really back to square one. It will all go down the drain with these operations,” she said when contacted.
Glorene urged the government not to turn migrant workers into a scapegoat.
She said that locking up undocumented migrants again could trigger another Covid-19 wave that would further burden the healthcare system that would not end with their deportation.
Glorene also asked the home minister to clarify the status of migrant workers who were registered under the Recalibration Programme.
“Are they exempted from being detained or will they just again, look at the passport and take them away?” she asked.
Azrul Mohd Khalib, chief executive of the Galen Centre for Health and Social Policy said the immigration crackdown is “self-defeating”.
“It is baffling that the Immigration Department would again decide to undertake such an exercise during this public health emergency which is becoming increasingly dire. Last year’s enforcement activities which resulted in thousands of people from the migrant communities being vulnerable, at risk of infection and becoming infected in detention due to those operations, should have guided the government’s decision on this issue.
“Just as it was done before in 2020, this would be a major mistake. You do not conduct such operations during a public health emergency, especially a pandemic.
“It has happened before. Why should we allow history to repeat itself, and cause harm to our Covid-19 response?” he said in a statement yesterday.
Last Saturday, news portal Free Malaysia Today reported Home Minister Hamzah saying that the Immigration Department would be conducting operations to detain undocumented migrants during the two-week lockdown.
According to the report, Hamzah said it would be a joint operation with the National Registration Department and the police. He added that the Prisons Department is willing to provide its facilities to detain the arrested undocumented migrants.
However, Coordinating Minister for the National Covid-19 Immunisation Programme Khairy Jamaluddin has also said the government is still keen to inoculate the migrant community for the sake of public health — even those without legitimate travel documents.
He reiterated his assertion in a news conference earlier on Sunday with Health Minister Datuk Seri Dr Adham Baba and said he will discuss the vaccination of migrants with Home Minister Hamzah this week.