Undocumented and Unvaccinated: Malaysia’s Unequal Vaccine Rollout

Infection rates continue to climb in Malaysia’s latest wave of COVID-19 infections. National COVID-19 Immunisation Programme was launched in February, not long after it was announced that everyone would be included in the vaccination program, including undocumented migrants. However, the Malaysian government later reversed this decision and instead pledged to crack down on undocumented migrants amid a nationwide lockdown. This has led to the arrest of more than 500 migrant workers, bringing the number of undocumented migrants detained this year to more than 9,000

This U-turn by the Perikatan Nasional administration is unsurprising. Last May, the same assurance was given to undocumented migrants to coax them into coming forward to get tested for COVID-19, only for hundreds to later be arrested in raids by the immigration department. 

On this episode, Deborah Augustin speaks to Adrian Pereira from North South Initiative and Mohammed*, an undocumented migrant from Bangladesh, about how the Malaysian government’s decision to deprive undocumented migrants of vaccines endangers not only this marginalised community but also Malaysia’s chances of reaching herd immunity.

*A pseudonym has been used to protect the guest’s identity due to fear for his safety. 

This interview was recorded on 14 July 2021

Due to the audio quality, some minor edits have been made to the following transcript for clarity.

Deborah 0:00
Hello everyone, I’m Deborah, New Naratif’s membership engagement manager. Infection rates continue to climb in Malaysia’s latest wave of COVID-19 infections. The National COVID-19 immunisation program was launched in February, not long after it was announced that everyone would be included in the vaccination program, including undocumented migrants. However, the Malaysian government later reversed this decision and instead pledged to crackdown on undocumented migrants amid a nationwide lockdown. This has led to the arrest of more than 500 migrant workers, bringing the number of undocumented migrants detained this year to more than 9000. This U-turn by the Perikatan Nasional administration is unsurprising. Last May, the same assurance was given to undocumented migrants to coax them into coming forward to get tested for COVID-19, only for hundreds to later be arrested in raids by the Immigration Department. On this episode, I speak to Adrian Pereira from North South Initiative, and Mohammed, an undocumented migrant from Bangladesh, about how the Malaysian government’s decision to deprive undocumented migrants of vaccines endangers not only this marginalised community, but also Malaysia’s chances of reaching herd immunity. But before that, if you enjoy what we’re doing, please do support our work by becoming a member of New Naratif, at newnaratif.com/join. Memberships start at just 52 US dollars a year. That’s just $1 a week. Or you can donate at newnaratif.com/donate. And check out our website at newnaratif.com for more stories from Southeast Asia. And now here’s our interview. So thank you both for joining me on the show today. How are you?

Mohammed 1:47
I’m fine (inaudible). So how about you all?

Deborah 1:50
I’m, well. What about you, Adrian?

Adrian 1:53
Yeah, I’m doing good. Thanks for having me here.

Deborah 1:56
Great. Maybe we’ll start with some introductions. Adrian, you’re the director at North South Initiative. Could you tell us more about this organisation? And what you do?

Adrian 2:06
Yeah, so the North South Initiative is a social justice organisation, which looks into the protection of the rights of minority groups and communities on the margins. So the communities that we work with, include migrant workers, refugees, young people living in conflict zones, so it’s quite a whole range of different topics. But as of recent, we have focused more on labour rights and migrants.

Deborah 2:46
Okay, great. Thank you. Mohammed, tell us about yourself. How long have you been working in Malaysia?

Mohammed 2:52
For seven years I (have been) working in Malaysia

Deborah 2:55
And you became undocumented two years ago. Could you tell us what happened there?

Mohammed 3:01
Actually not fully two years. But it is almost one and a half years. Last year, March 2020, [I became] undocumented. Before that I’m legal.

Deborah 3:14
And so currently, there’s a white flag movement in Malaysia, which is an initiative started by a group of youth in Kuantan, to help people who are struggling financially. This involves a person putting a white flag outside their home as a signal for aid. And people would then provide them with food and other essential goods. That in and of itself paints a clear picture of the dire economic situation in Malaysia and how COVID has exacerbated unemployment and financial insecurity. Undocumented migrants in particular are legally forbidden from working and not entitled to government aid. On top of that, they face the risk of detention and immigration raids. Mohammed, what has the past year navigating this pandemic been like for you, considering this economic situation in Malaysia?

Mohammed 4:07
Actually, after I left the previous company, when I joined the new company, after one week, I did the lockdown. So the current company, they helping me for the (inaudible) money, only the general things, what other company provide all the workers. But [when they got] me, they’re not suspect me because [my own friend] know the company supervisor, so he recommends me. That’s why I can do work with them. And then in this economic situation, I also hope and I also just waiting. I thought that time, maybe the Malaysia, leaving (inaudible) and then giving the chance to renew our visa for recalibration, this type of procedures. (Inaudible) but now the COVID-19 is very higher than before. So they’re saying the process is very slow.

Deborah 5:18
And have you been able to get paid during this time?

Mohammed 5:21

Deborah 5:23
So how have you been coping?

Mohammed 5:25
I have the part time job from the [grocery store]. So the shop owner giving me the account job, like calculating his accounting [for] two or three hours. So that part-time job, I can only get the cost for my rental money (inaudible). Very hard situation.

Deborah 5:57
And have you been able to receive any aid? Any food aid, for example?

Mohammed 6:04

Deborah 6:05
Adrian, so Malaysia began its national vaccination program in February and assured the public that foreigners, including undocumented migrants, would also be included in the rollout with no retaliation from the authorities. The government eventually reversed this decision. And Malaysia’s home minister, Hamzah Zainuddin, said that the reason behind the latest mass arrests was to ensure undocumented migrants get their COVID-19 vaccines and to protect Malaysians, as part of measures to contain the surge in cases. What kind of long term effects will this decision have on the community and on Malaysia as a whole?

Adrian 6:44
Yeah, so we saw a similar U-turn made last year when the government promised migrants that they would not be arrested when they go for testing. And unfortunately, after the testing in the MCO areas, there was mass arrests taking place. So that already, way back then, caused many migrants to have fears that they they are at risk of arrest and detention. So it’s very unfortunate that in managing the pandemic, the government had already lost the trust of such a vital and crucial community. And fast forward to the recent arrests and detentions, it’s very unfortunate that we can see different ministries, failing to align their agendas with the National COVID management programs. So you see raids happening when you’re actually supposed to, you know, regain the trust of the community. And think of a safe way to get them vaccinated because the migrant community and Malaysians are already living together. And this is a virus that doesn’t discriminate. So, you know, it’s really a mismanagement by the government of Malaysia in particularly the Home Affairs Ministry and till today, we don’t have clear instructions from the government on how they plan to do this. We all know the more arrests and detention are carried out, it just further causes the trust gap to widen and this is not good for everyone.

Deborah 8:48
Yes, we’ll definitely want to talk about some of this u turns that have happened. And, you know, yeah, I’m sure that there has been a climate of fear created by this. Mohamed, how did you receive the news about the arrest and the government’s pledge to come after undocumented migrants

Mohammed 9:10
Actually from the social media like Facebook, Instagram and YouTube, I can get the news (inaudible), that Malaysia currently got the very critical situation and all the undocumented worker from here they’re taking a major majority of this worker in their testing. Who does not follow the SOP (inaudible) like many people who affected by COVID-19 and which place got a lot of workers (inaudible) The SOPs, and which place did not follow. So, if somehow from the local people when they give any reports or they giving the correct information for the police in that setting and if they got problems, [they will single out the migrant workers]

Deborah 10:20
And how is the feeling in the community since this news has come out?

Mohammed 10:26
Actually, I’m not feeling well, because every day I [hear a lot about detention]. I also am undocumented currently. So it can be happening to me also how I can be in detention. [So I feel fear] tension in this situation, but I try my best to get the recalibration under the new company (inaudible). But the last time I reached out was with brother Adrian. So I forgot to tell you, I needed brother Adrian to help me. So I got little economical support from him. So I can pay my food money for the last month, rental home and everything.

Deborah 11:23
Yeah, I suppose it must be much harder to make money when you are afraid of these arrests and raids happening. So, Adrian, the problem of needing documentation extends to the vaccination program as well. The use of a Malaysian ID or a passport is compulsory to register for vaccination in Malaysia. The Home Affairs Minister said it would be impossible to vaccinate the undocumented because their status cannot be tracked. This doesn’t only affect migrants, but also some indigenous groups who lack documentation along with Malaysia’s stateless population. What’s your response to the minister’s reasoning for not vaccinating undocumented people?

Adrian 12:10
Yeah. So you see, the plan to vaccine should have been rolled out a long time ago with more consulting, more dialogues with the communities. Now that didn’t happen. So it’s very disappointing that Malaysia, which has access to technology, we have access to so many community workers to get this done. And that wasn’t done in the earlier stages. And to suddenly say that you must have this document and that document is not true. There are so many different forms of IDs, which a community may have, you know, a community person or member may have. So, for me, in this case, it’s clear cut that there was never an intention to make it easy for the migrants to get vaccinated. So that’s very clear. I mean, it’s a very strange comment to say that, you know, it’s only when you have this particular document that you get vaccinated, it shouldn’t be that way. Simple adjustments to MySejahtera should help or enable any migrant who’s afraid to come forward to be able to register and get vaccinated in a safe manner. But for me, the bigger issue is the non-alignment with the national vaccination agenda that a particular ministry has decided to make its own decisions. So it’s very unfortunate that end of the day, all of us have to pay the price for that.

Deborah 13:55
And have there been any efforts from the government or NGOs to reach community leaders about vaccination?

Adrian 14:04
Yeah, indirectly, they have been having some dialogues with certain NGOs and certain INGOs. But till today, there is no clarity on how the undocumented migrant community should access the vaccines. There’s no clarity in that. So we are still kind of worried. It’s very unfortunate that Malaysia, which has so much access to technology, human resource that we we still haven’t solved this issue. So yeah, it’s it’s kind of very disappointing.

Deborah 14:45
And just to clarify, you mean that there has been some outreach from the government to NGOs about vaccinations for undocumented people or migrants in general?

Adrian 14:57
Yeah, that’s what we have heard. But these plans have not been made public, or it has not been conveyed to the communities themselves. So everybody is guessing what’s going on. And you know we don’t really have clarity on what to do next. So it’s just fortunate.

Deborah 15:23
Mohammed, what has your experience with vaccination been like? Have you tried to register for a vaccine?

Mohammed 15:30
Actually, myself I already registered under the MySejahtera but still myself I’m clear because the last time when I register, I shared with Adrian. so can i go if they give me the appointment? Because myself also I’m not satisfied. I don’t know, will they bring me (inaudible). Like, somehow they’re resisting me the visa validity, but I have the new passport with me. So that’s why I will separate myself if they confirm me the appointment. So how, how can I be there to the community or to the health centre where they provide the vaccine? When I am feeling like that, so I feel for the other workers who is [in a more] difficult [situation] than me because who is the person don’t have the minimum education from migrant worker, majority from the Bangladeshi. Other migrant workers in majority are not educated. So [for those who are] not educated and then don’t know how to go and process everything,they must fear. They’re waiting for someone who can help them. Who is becoming like the ‘angel’ to them. Like someone [to help] them and settle them from all the harassment. Because in this situation now, the all the migrant workers who have undocumented, so surely they’re like 100% afraid for any experience with them ( the authorities), like by the police (inaudible) because some of the migrant workers when they feel sick, or when they get any symptoms for the COVID-19 they are not out from their home or they are not go to meet the doctor, because they are very stress [and what they are] supposed to do. Because they cannot share also, maybe they’re not shared with a friend. Because they fear. If they go to meet with the doctor, go to a clinic or hospital, So how they will say it (inaudible)? [ Are they going to deport him? Are they going to test him and report him?] So all this type of thing is now happening to all the undocumented migrant workers.

Deborah 18:13
Right. So it seems like a fear of deportation is making access to healthcare a real problem for people. Adrian, how do you compare the Malaysian government’s dealing with the issue of vaccinating undocumented migrants to neighbouring countries in the region?

Adrian 18:31
So in the early stages of the pandemic, what some governments did was they started granting documents to undocumented migrants. So we saw that happening in Thailand. And that once you have your documentation, you have access to vaccines, treatments and of course, testings. But in Malaysia, it’s a bit different. There is an ongoing program called the recalibration program. But it’s so flawed that it’s, the numbers that actually were registered, are still very small. And even worse is while this recalibration program is going on, at the same time, the raids are going on. So you have clearly two separate process which negate or contradict each other. And you know, this is only going to backfire Malaysians, not only because of the, that virus doesn’t discriminate, but that our national vaccination process is so slow. We have seen some countries who have responded in a kinder way towards migrants. But the government of Malaysia, definitely not. Because in general, it looks at migration through a security lens. And the result is just terrible.

Deborah 20:10
Sorry, could you give a bit more details about what this recalibration plan is?

Adrian 20:17
Yeah. So there’s two parts of the program. One is an amnesty program to allow undocumented migrants to return home safely. Of course, there’s a small fine to pay. And the second part is rejoining the workforce. And this is quite limited, where there are only certain sectors that are allowed to hire the undocumented migrants. But of course, it also comes with certain payments to be made. Now from what we are hearing on the ground is that it’s not easy for migrants to get access to this process. They are still agents involved, there’s a certain degree of corruption. So without basic, good governance practices, the efforts to get migrants documented is very difficult. And it’s not new. We’ve seen the same thing happen in the past programs, the past rehiring programs, the (inaudible) program, it’s the same nightmare again. So as long as Malaysia keeps looking at labor migration under a security lens, and without getting rid of corruption, things are gonna become very difficult for our migrant friends.

Deborah 21:51
And as you mentioned, simultaneously there is this increase in raids and arrests, which, as you said, seems to counter the effectiveness of trying to document people.

Adrian 22:03
Actually the raids and arrests, if you look at the numbers, are so insignificant. They barely leave an impact on the national agenda. It doesn’t reduce the numbers. We should also read what’s happening in the light of human trafficking and forced labor. And there were just two reports over the last few weeks that portrayed Malaysia’s horrible, horrible track record. One was the TIP report by the Americans, and the other was the workers rights by the International Trade Union body. So I think for the TIP report, we were on tier three, which is the last year and for the ITUC report, we came second last. So this is quite shocking. And it only shows that systematically, we have failed our migrant workers. Forced labor is one of the causes that lead to migrants losing their documents. Not to forget trafficking and smuggling of migrants.

Deborah 23:31
And are there any examples regionally or globally that we can emulate?

Adrian 23:37
Yeah, there were countries that offered certain citizenship rights. So even if it’s not citizenship, it offered equal citizenship and I think there are campaigns in Malaysia where certain organisations are fighting for this. We have also seen kinder response to migrants. There are some labor reforms that happened in the Middle East. There’s the removal of the kafala system in Qatar, if I’m not mistaken. And in Malaysia till today, the migrants permit is still tied to the employer. So it’s only now that during COVID you see these problems come to the surface, but it’s actually the result of accumulated issues like poor policymaking, mismanagement in the global supply chain, human trafficking, smuggling, and of course, even corruption in the government recruitment systems. So these things are yet to be addressed. And my advice to migrant workers is, Malaysia is not a safe place to find work. Unfortunately, because the reforms are not happening as fast as it should. Singapore learned its lesson very painfully in the early days of the pandemic, when the migrant hostels were a main cause of the spreading of the virus. But they quickly responded. They quickly responded in a very genuine and sincere manner. That is something Malaysia doesn’t exhibit – the authentic agenda to help migrant workers. So it’s really unfortunate. Yeah.

Deborah 25:39
Though, I believe that the response in Singapore is still to basically keep migrant workers under lockdown while the rest of the population is allowed relative freedom at the moment. If I’m not mistaken, that has continued to be, there is a different sort of set of protocols for migrant workers in hostels and dormitories in Singapore, versus the rest of the population.

Adrian 26:06
You’re right. Yeah. That’s given. I think that’s unfortunate also, in terms of the mobility of people, I think everybody should have the right to move. It’s just unfortunate that in terms of corruption, if you want to compare Singapore with Malaysia in terms of good governance, I think there’s no way you can compare it. There’s absolutely no way. Both have compromised on on civic rights, historically. But definitely, in terms of migrant workers management, they are way, way ahead of Malaysia. So I think the critique has to be fair, yeah.

Deborah 26:49
Right. And I mean, yes, so we’ve definitely seen this increase, or at least this rhetoric, this increase in rhetoric to crackdown on undocumented migrants during Malaysia’s most recent lockdown, which purportedly is to curb the spread of COVID-19. But how do you interpret the timing of this crackdown? Adrian, do you have any thoughts about why this rhetoric is being used at this particular time?

Adrian 27:19
If you look at the global trends, politicians have always used migration as an argument to gain support and also to divert attention from other bigger and more important issues. So if you look at Malaysia, statistically, the numbers involved in the raids are so small, that it barely creates an impact on on our overall management of the pandemic. And on top of that, if you look at the number of employers or agents that were charged, it’s so small. It shows how unfair and unjust the the system is. So that’s really unfortunate.

Deborah 28:11
And in June 2020, so last year, there was a surge in COVID cases in detention centres, following immigration raids carried out the month before. Considering our immigration detention centres are already overcrowded, this current increase in raids and arrests could lead to another COVID cluster, which would undermine Malaysia’s efforts to reach herd immunity. Have you been able to communicate this to anyone in the government?

Adrian 28:39
Oh, actually, there have been so many global experts who have already voiced out their concern that the arrests and detentions are highly, highly dangerous to the healthcare of everyone. UN experts have voiced out, global NGOs have voiced out. Even local health experts have voiced out. I mean, the government knows, it’s not rocket science. So it clearly shows that they don’t care and portraying arrest and detention as a solution is what they think can convince Malaysians that they are taking the right action to curb this crisis. But that’s not not happening. So for me my conclusion, it’s very clear, you know, you have a political crisis, you put migrants as a scapegoat and you conduct these arrests and detentions. You get the media on board, you bring them for the raids. You portray them as criminals in the videos. You portray them as criminals in poster. So all this is clearly a propaganda to mislead. In fact, I would call it fake news. And yeah, it’s just unfortunate.

Deborah 30:10
And for those listening in from outside Malaysia, Malaysia is currently facing unprecedented political instability. So, yes, it does seem to be sort of tied into that current, the lack of confidence in the current administration, this increase in rhetoric about immigration, detention and raids. Mohammed, do you know anyone personally, who has been arrested so far? Have you heard back from anyone who has been detained?

Mohammed 30:46
Personally, I don’t have any information (inaudible). But normally, I see in the news, I saw there are a few people, maybe I know before, maybe I know from his face, but I don’t know his name. Maybe they are the same area in my Bangladesh, same area but I didn’t meet with them all the time. So they are testing by the immigration operation there. So actually, I’m not getting any information personally, or any contract by any other people or friends. My ‘friends’ mean people who live nearby or who is working (inaudible) until now, not [caught by] immigration.

Deborah 31:37
Okay. Well, I hope that you will all be able to keep safe. Adrian, have you been in contact with anyone who has been recently detained?

Adrian 31:46
Oh, yeah, unfortunately, because once they are detained, they do not, I mean, we do not have access to the migrants. And those who are released, they are under very, very strict observation or strict instructions from their bosses, not to reveal or expose anything. So it’s unfortunate that this lockdown has also limited our access to those who are detained. So, you know, it’s very tragic, because they won’t have access to justice. We are not sure. Who are the other bodies that are monitoring. So it’s just a bad horrible system.

So what kind of access to detainees is there at the moment for organisations like yours or even the UNHCR?

Yeah, so because of the lockdown, we really don’t have access. What can be done, or what does happen is embassies have a dialogue with the authorities to verify or to talk to their citizens. And of course, another body, SUHAKAM, also supposed to have access to detention centres. But the lockdown just make things so complicated. These health issues, the security issues. So it’s just in a really, really bad condition, bad situation.

Deborah 33:27
And do we know if the authorities have made any move to actually vaccinate any of the detainees so far?

Adrian 33:34
There’s no indicators of that.

Deborah 33:37
Right. Mohammed, have you or anyone in your community received calls from NGOs or government agencies regarding coming forward for vaccination?

Mohammed 33:52
Yeah, I needed information passed, I think two or three months ago from that Mr Adrian request me, but at the time I’m very afraid about that. Actually, I don’t want to meet with them or hospital. So because that time, they didn’t have the recalibration, clear announcement. So that’s why I was afraid. So that’s why I didn’t take it.

Deborah 34:24
Adrian, could you maybe clear up for me? Have you approached undocumented people or migrant workers about the possibility of getting vaccination?

Adrian 34:34
Yeah, so we have talked to them, and they are just afraid because there’s no guarantee of their safety. That the journey to vaccination centres may be far from their homes. And you may have to pass by multiple checkpoints. So they’re very, very clear that you know, until there is a guarantee, or this this vaccination process is facilitated by a safe actor, then they would consider. But for my latest conversations, it’s definitely a big no.

Deborah 35:17
Okay. We’re coming to the end of the interview. Maybe I’d like to close by asking what can Malaysians listening in do to help undocumented migrants weather this tough time?

Adrian 35:33
Yeah, so first of all, we need to look into the basic needs. Be kind to migrants who have lost their jobs, it’s not their fault. The current lockdown, coupled with the economic situation has caused many to lose their jobs. So, be kind, help them out with groceries, even their rentals. And sometimes their medical bills are also unpaid. So look out for that. And if the community faces security threats from corrupt officers or the employers have abandoned them, you can always report to the government. There are certain bodies which have oversight of enforcement. So collect the evidence, make sure you have evidence, make sure you have interviewed the workers well and be brave to lodge a report. If you need assistance. You can always reach out to some of the NGOs and they will be willing to help.

Deborah 36:49
Mohammad, are there any ways you think Malaysians can help undocumented migrants at this time?

Mohammed 36:56
Yeah sure. Malaysian who are willing or wish to help the migrants or undocumented migrants workers, so they know very well because majority workers working with Malaysian people. So who knows personally like, maybe one Malaysian supervisor [who handles a lot of] migrant workers, so he knows about them. So maybe they can, they can make a decision or he can inform to the company or he can collect the migrant worker the information to be documented. So [to see] is [the person] totally undocumented or maybe he had an interruption behind his document process or whatever. So after that, they can take them, or they can request through the company or any other community organisation to help them. That is way easier. There have some documents to submit, like the, normally tax form and visa and everything (inaudible). so they can show it and easily can. Malaysians only can help [with that].

Adrian 38:39
Yeah, if there’s one, really last final message I could tell Malaysians is that the undocumented migrants that we see, became undocumented for faults not of their own. So it’s either through cheating, through trafficking, smuggling, forced labor. And we believe that 95% of the undocumented migrants we see are in that scenario. So let’s not use terms that are dehumanising like ‘illegal migrants’ or ‘pendatang asing tanpa izin’ , which really doesn’t represent their actual status or how they ended up in that status. So I think we should take a step back. Study the scenarios that have cost migrants to become undocumented before we judge them, or before we criminalise them because there are many other factors involved. So I hope Malaysians, be kinder to all migrants. It doesn’t matter whether they are documented, documented or not, because a documentation doesn’t define who we are. Yeah.

Deborah 40:00
Yes, that’s so true. And thank you for sharing that. We definitely believe in the power of language at New Naratif and w make it a point not to use the term ‘illegal’ when referring to people who are undocumented. So thank you for sharing that Adrian, and thank you both. That’s all for today. Thank you so much, Adrian and Mohammed. Thank you for speaking to me and sharing your thoughts on the situation with regards to vaccines and undocumented people in Malaysia.

Our thanks to Adrian and Mohammed for joining us on this week’s episode of Southeast Asia Dispatches.
Next week, be sure to tune in to New Naratif’s Political Agenda, our podcast series on current affairs in Singapore.

This is Deborah wishing all our listeners a great week ahead.

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