Remembering Sabah's undocumented in a panicked Malaysia — Vila Somiah, Michelle R. Usman and Anne Baltazar

MARCH 22 — A flustered call comes in on Day One of the movement control order (MCO) in Sabah, filled with anxiety about the dangerous intersection between his health, income level and legal status.

“I’m scared and I don’t know who else to call. Ada chek pree kah? (Are there free screenings?) Tau la sia ni teda pas (As you know, I don’t have documentation),” said Awang*, a 40-year-old undocumented person, uncertain if he may have come into contact with Covid-19, while working as a labourer.

Although we were able to notify him of the places he could receive thorough medical attention, he then revealed his other fear which we overlooked; he was petrified of the authorities and needed further reassurance that they would not refer him to the immigration office during the screening.

Those working closely with the undocumented community in Sabah would have received similar calls of late to recognise a major problem at hand: The grey zone of medical inclusivity.

Like Malaysia, many countries around the world have become devastated by the novel coronavirus, with hundreds and thousands experiencing not just illness, but also homelessness, displacement, loss of employment and an exponential number of deaths.

The slow but steady surge of the virus has forced the Malaysian government to take action in mitigating the effects of the pandemic by issuing a MCO enforced on March 18, 2020.

This was important for citizens of the state to feel that drastic measures are taken to ensure their safety and well-being. But in Sabah, with an estimated one third of its 2.9 million population being non-citizens, this translated differently.

In the days leading up to the call, Awang was restless, cowering at the sight of Rela volunteers who had been deployed to assist the police force and military in enforcing the MCO.

Fearful of being refused medical screening for Covid-19 or worse, detained at temporary detention centres, Awang went on without any certainty from any government authorities that those two situations will not occur.

Many more live with the same uncertainty of their own lives like Awang.

As they are not issued any government identity document, there are no civil rights for them to even speak of before the pandemic erupted.

Now, in the face of the virus, their situation is exacerbated by the silence from the authorities.

There is no way for Awang and many others in his shoes to find out whether there will be repercussions for them and their families should they even attempt to screen for the deadly virus.

While this may sound anecdotal to some, such vulnerabilities actually highlight alarming realities on the ground.

With such a massive undocumented population, the difficulty has always been keeping abreast with events and challenges in the community simply because we are left data blind.

Population demographics have always been kept confidential and their numbers have been mere estimations by civil society groups.

And while some of the greater issues surrounding undocumentedness have been their inability to access education, employment, shelter and documentation, healthcare is by far the most worrying of the pick in a Covid-19 stricken Malaysia.

To be fair, there has been offered assistance from public health centres for anyone in need, regardless of legal status.

In an effort to flatten the curve, a directive from the Malaysian Ministry of Health has announced that all foreigners who exhibit symptoms or who have had direct contact with infected persons will not be charged a medical fee for the screening and subsequent admission into the hospital.

Patients will only be charged a fee of RM40 if no symptoms are present. But the problem presented is two pronged.

The first being the issue of labels. The circular did not specify if this necessarily applied to the undocumented.

For many irregular migrants in Sabah, their legal status has always been considered fluid.

While they have gone by labels such as "asylum seekers," “illegal immigrants,” “refugees,” “work migrants” and “stateless” by academics, civil society groups and the government, their position remains irregular due to the multiplicity of overlapping statuses, and as such, the offer to screen can seem daunting and suspicious as their legal status remains obscure over multiple generations.

This bleeds into the second point, which is the lack of clarity on any official medical stand.

The language of public health urgency at the moment is very grey in relation to the undocumented.

A circular by the Ministry of Health dated March 21, 2020 stated that they, in collaboration with UNHCR and a few other CSOs, have reached out to the refugees and asylum seekers' communities to trace the participants of the Tabligh Jama’at conference held in Sri Petaling last month due to them being close contacts.

However, several other undocumented persons who have expressed feeling unwell had informed us that they had difficulty looking for help in their respective districts as they had been continously misinformed, which led them to find alternative medical solutions, most of which cannot be accounted for.

We welcome the efforts being carried out by the MOH in collaboration with UNHCR and other CSOs but believe that such an important measure ought to be a standard adopted by the government of Sabah that is thoroughly implemented state-wide.

A fantastically thorough article of a similar topic entitled “Special measures needed to curb Covid-19 in refugee and migrant communities” by Jemilah Mahmood, Tunku Puteri Intan Safinaz and Lilianne Fan (Malay Mail, March 19, 2020) highlighted a similar plight reminding that if fear continues to dominate the narrative of recovery, migrants would feel compelled to further retreat into hiding and evade any possible assistance provided for them.

Their suggestion is to suspend all immigration raids and arrests and for the Malaysian government to initiate a plan of action in preventing outbreaks at detention centres.

While this is true, more needs to be emphasised, and it has become necessary to reach out to the undocumented through more effective means.

If these communities are not empowered to come forward when they are infected, it will pose a greater danger to the larger population of Sabah, posing a threat to affecting a third wave of the virus.

In Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we are reminded that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights [and] are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”

Despite long-standing socio-political complications surrounding undocumented residents in Sabah, we feel it is of the utmost importance that we avoid hate and discrimination in these trying times.

Those of irregular status have long been our waiters, domestic helpers, workmates, neighbours, nannies, caretakers of our elderlies, tea ladies, and friends.

They too, like us, are subjected to a virus that knows no citizenship status, race, religion or culture, flattens the disparity and levels all people.

Their illness is ours and therefore, our recovery must be theirs as well.

* Not his real name

** Dr Vila Somiah is an anthropologist based at the University of Malaya. She is an exco member of the Sabah Human Rights Centre.

Michelle R. Usman is a criminal lawyer based in Kota Kinabalu. She is best known for her volunteer work with the National Legal Aid Foundation and is a co-founder of the Sabah Human Rights Centre.

Anne Baltazar has more than 10 years of experience in NGOs focusing mostly on issues of women and children, statelessness and migration. She is also a co-founder of the Sabah Human Rights Centre.

*** This is the personal opinion of the writer(s) or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.

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