MAY 1 — The last few months have been incredibly difficult. Life has never felt more uncertain. The pandemic has reshaped the way we live in very fundamental ways – we have established a new normal in every aspect of our lives, from how we work, consume, and the way we socialise.
In these times, both the best and worst in people has emerged.
We have recently seen a rising tide of anger towards migrants and refugees in Malaysia. This has led to a debate on how we should deal with migrant and informal populations during this crisis.
As researchers on migration issues, we strongly believe in our moral obligation to help refugees who have been driven from their homes by war and persecution, as well as migrant workers who do essential “3D” jobs for wages we would never accept for ourselves.
This includes refugees that traffickers have left to die in leaky boats off our shores — people who risk their own lives by venturing out on a perilous sea journey, out of desperation.
People who in our research have told us that, although they are incredibly grateful to Malaysians and Malaysia, see themselves as guests here and wish to return to Myanmar when it is safe to do so.
However, we are economists as well, and we also believe in the law of unintended consequences: Taking support away from migrants will indirectly but inevitably undermine our successes in containing Covid-19.
Many have eloquently made the moral case for refugees and migrants in the past few weeks already, so our focus here will be exclusively on the pragmatic reasons to care for our migrant community.
From a public health standpoint, no one should and can be left out in this fight against the virus. A few weeks ago, Singapore was the envy of the world. Their quick response, strong institutions, and great wealth had allowed them to contain Covid-19 despite being among the first countries exposed to it. Now, Singapore is just slightly behind the apocalyptic United States in cases per capita.
The reason for this reversal is clear — Singapore did everything right for its citizens but ignored migrants, who constitute more than 1 million people within its borders. Social distancing and hygiene measures are impossible for many who are living in inadequate living conditions that sometimes lack basic necessities like clean water.
Cramped dorms were the perfect breeding ground for the disease, and public health officials’ prioritisation of locals left this crisis out of sight and out of mind until it was too late.
While the majority of cases have been among migrant workers, local cases have also exploded. This should be no surprise — migrants may be worlds away from locals in social status, but they often occupy the same physical space. An epidemic among migrants will inevitably spread to locals.
Singapore has attempted to stop the flow of infection from migrants to locals by isolating migrants en masse, but this itself is extremely costly, both in terms of demand on medical resources and lost essential labour from the quarantined workers.
Malaysia now finds itself in an enviable position, similar to Singapore’s in March: Local transmission cases are approaching single digits and are isolated to a few remaining hotspots. This is cause for celebration, but it would a grave mistake to assume that we couldn’t also face a massive third wave, especially as we restart the economy next week.
Therefore, in this time of crisis, Malaysia should not be pulling back from its commitments to migrants and refugees, it should be expanding them. Like Singapore, Malaysia has a large population of migrant workers — more than 2 million formal ones, and more than 1.5 million undocumented ones.
Migrants prepare our food, care for our elderly, clean our businesses, and watch our children.
We may not consider them Malaysian, but the virus makes no distinction. Whether we like it or not, we’re all living in the same space, and in a pandemic that means your health is my health, and my health is yours.
It takes solidarity that looks beyond nationality, skin colour and faith, more so than ever, to win the fight against the pandemic.
If Malaysia pursues aggressive immigration enforcement, refugees and undocumented migrants will go into hiding. These hidden population movements will spread the infection, and because they’re hidden, officials will not see the clusters until they are out of control, just like in Singapore.
This is particularly true since contact tracing will be crucial at keeping the viral infections at bay, and the Ministry of Health must be able to see and monitor every individual in this country who could potentially be part of an infection cluster.
With well over a million undocumented migrants — some estimates put the number at 3-4 million – arresting a large proportion of the population in a short time period is unrealistic, and even those who are arrested may be difficult to deport — refugees cannot be deported, and during a crisis of closed borders even workers who’ve overstayed their visas may not be immediately accepted back in their home countries.
Thus, they will end up in detention facilities or jails, which have emerged as some of the worst breeding grounds for Covid-19 in countries around the world. Staff at these facilities will inevitably get infected, despite precautions, and re-infect the population at large.
In fact, many countries, such as Afghanistan and Iran, have been releasing prisoners from jails, mainly because they have deemed the looming widespread infection among a closed community a bigger threat than the criminal history of the prisoners.
In times of crisis, the impulse to pull back from obligations to others and focus on protecting yourself and your people is normal. How can you worry about a stranger when your family is in danger?
Hate speech and lashing out against the “other” might be an effective psychological coping mechanism that helps to reduce the anxiety and fear that we’re all feeling in the face of these uncertain times, but this relief is short-lived. Under the unfamiliar logic of a pandemic, leaving behind any segment of the population living in this country is the most dangerous thing you can do.
Singapore shows us that all the wealth and infrastructure in the world can’t protect a country if it doesn’t protect everyone living there — our public health system is only as strong as its weakest link.
Instead of arguing over who deserves help, we should recognise that helping outsiders, including migrants and refugees, is the best thing we can do to help ourselves.
Instead of trying to punish refugees for fleeing persecution or migrants for overstaying their visa to send more money home to impoverished family members, we should be providing amnesty to coax them out of hiding so we have visibility over our entire population, not just locals.
We should allow them to work formally, so they aren’t forced to pursue hidden jobs without protective gear like facemasks to survive. In this crisis, protecting migrants isn’t just a matter of morality — it’s a matter of national security.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer(s) or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.