COVID-19 Op-ed

Covid-19 pandemic: refugee and state responses in Malaysia

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Aslam Abd JalilDoctoral
candidate, The University of Queensland (UQ)

As Malaysian Government recently announced a total of RM
260 billion
stimulus packages to cushion the impacts of Covid-19
(Daim, 2020), refugees and asylum-seekers remain left behind. Since refugees
in Malaysia are considered as ‘illegal’ or undocumented immigrants, they are
not allowed to work lawfully and thus they are forced into informal
employment. Lack of status has contributed to human trafficking,
debt-bondage, forced begging and forced labour of refugees including women
and children. This has put Malaysia at Tier
2 Watch List in the 2019 Trafficking in Persons Report
(US State
Department, 2019) which tarnishes its human rights records and possibly leads
to trade sanctions. While most if not all Malaysians receive state
assistance, refugees are left more vulnerable amid this crisis. Therefore, it
is important to understand how refugees adapt with some challenges followed
by  recommendations on what the state should do.What does MCO mean to
Control Order (MCO) has been imposed by the Malaysian Government

(PM Office of Malaysia, 2020) starting on 18 March until 14 April 2020 so
far. With restricted movement, only people working in essential
are allowed to move from one place to another (Arumugam,
2020) while others must remain at home. Most refugees who are daily wage
earners especially in 3D – dirty, dangerous and demeaning sectors such as
construction workers, sweepers, garbage collectors and grass cutters are
unable to work and therefore they have lost their source of income. Yusuf, a
scrap collector used to earn between RM 25 to RM 30 daily while his daughter
Halayda used to earn RM 600 monthly as a waitress. Loss of
income with no savings means the family like other refugees depend on the
mercy of local NGOs and community-based organisations such as Human Aid
Selangor to avoid starvation. Furthermore, social distancing is a luxury for
them who live in squalid conditions with many refugees
cramp in small-sized flats
(Ying, 2020). To make things worse,
without access to financial institution such as bank account, the only way to
receive aid is through the distribution of goods which exposes risk of
contracting the virus due to physical movement and contact.Refugees giving
Despite the hardships faced by refugees, they
take the effort to give
back to the Malaysian society
(Radu, 2020). A group of refugees in
collaboration with Al-Hasan Volunteer Network and Beyond Borders
have been serving
their scrumptious traditional meals to the frontline staff at a local
(Bedi, 2020). Using their own pocket money, these refugees
want to thank the medical staff for their tireless efforts in fighting this
invisible enemy. Such noble effort is a manifestation of how refugees feel
gratitude towards Malaysia and their sense of belonging to this new home.
This is an important milestone to change the narrative of refugees from being
passive victims who rely on charity to active agents who are productive in
One thing this crisis has affirmed
is that everyone is vulnerable to any virus or disease regardless of their
status. Therefore, it is imperative to ensure the right to healthcare can be
accessed by non-citizens
too which include refugees, migrants and stateless people
Rights Watch, 2020). If any community is deprived from such right, it will
pose a great threat to the public. Unfortunately, the exorbitant
medical costs for non-citizens
(“Health Ministry hikes up hospital
fees for foreigners…”,2017) and the threat
of being arrested
(Fishbein, 2020) for their immigration status
refugees from accessing healthcare
as they are struggling to put
food on the table, especially as they are not allowed to work (Aslam, 2019).
The directive by the Ministry
of Health Malaysia to provide free Covid-19 test and treatment
everyone should be commended (Ministry of Health, 2020). Moving forward,
Health Act
which is a comprehensive healthcare policy proposal that
covers refugees, migrants and stateless people (Khor et. al., 2020) should be
formulated immediately.Covid-19 pandemic is a reminder that any virus and
disease do not discriminate anyone because every life matters. Political will
and right policy are urgently needed to prevent any public health crisis to
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  Retrieved from _________________________________ Based on
author’s communication with Badariah Abdul Hamid, Deputy Chairperson of Human
Aid Selangor
Based on author’s communication with Mahi Ramakrishnan, Founder and Director
of Beyond Borders

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