COVID-19 Op-ed

Remembering the Undocumented of Sabah in a Panicked Malaysia

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By Dr. Vila Somiah, Michelle R Usman and Anne

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 Movement Control Order enforced on
the 18th March 2020. This was important for citizens of the state to feel
that drastic measures are taken to ensure their safety and wellbeing. But in
Sabah, with an estimated one third of its 2.9 million population being
non-citizens, this translated differently.Many without government identity
documents are fearful of not being able to pay for a medical screening for
Covid-19 or worse, detained at temporary detention centres. There were 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 the undocumented to find out whether there
will be repercussions for them and their families should they even attempt to
screen for the deadly virus.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 foreigners. 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 the they have gone by labels such as “asylum
seekers”, “illegal immigrants”, “refugees”, “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 as their legal status remain obscure over
multiple generations.This bleeds into the second point, the lack of clarity
on any official medical stand. The language of public health is very grey in
relation to the undocumented. A circular by the Ministry of Health dated 21
March 2020 stated that they, in collaboration with UNHCR and a few other CSOs
have reached out to the refugees and asylum seekers communities who are 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. We welcome the efforts being carried out by the
MOH but we believe that such an important measure ought to be a standard
adopted by the government of Sabah state-wide.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. It is
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 
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, 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, neighbours,
nannies, caretakers of our elderlies, 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.*This article is an
abridged version of Remembering Sabah’s undocumented in a panicked
Malaysia — Vila Somiah, Michelle R. Usman and Anne Baltazar published
by on 22nd March
2020**Dr. Vila Somiah is an anthropologist based at the
University of Malaya. She is an exco member of the Sabah Human Rights
**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
**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.

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