Undocumented migrants are no punching bags

Josh Hong

The mass detention of undocumented migrants during the national lockdown led to at least five depots hit by Covid-19 cases one after another. – The Malaysian Insight file pic, October 12, 2020.

AS Malaysia reported the sharpest spike in Covid-19 cases earlier this week, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin in his televised speech on Tuesday again blamed undocumented migrants and prison inmates for the worsening situations in Sabah and Kedah, demonstrating fully his attempt to pass the buck for the deepening crisis to others.

At the start of the pandemic, the Muhyiddin administration initially encouraged whoever showing symptoms to come forward for screening, undocumented migrant workers included. Defence Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob even went a step further by assuring them that no action would be taken against them, which was a humane and sensible approach to take.

Barely a month later, the government changed its position drastically and began to arrest undocumented persons en masse while the entire country was on lockdown.

I already warned at the time that mass arrests would not help contain the virus effectively, but would drive migrant workers who had potentially contracted it into hiding, making tracing virtually impossible.

Furthermore, the overcrowded and unsanitary conditions in detention centres and prison cells would serve as nothing but a perfect breeding ground for all kinds of diseases including Covid-19. A public health disaster was set to happen on a greater scale. 

Alas, my fear turned out to be well founded, for at least five detention centres across the country were hit by Covid-19 cases one after another, with the Bukit Jalil immigration depot being the largest cluster with nearly 600 confirmed cases in early June.

One could clearly see from news reports that immigration officials had failed to adhere to the standard operating procedure (SOP) prescribed by the Health Ministry as they made the detainees sit closely together in handcuffs, a dehumanising way to treat a group of people whose only crime was to contribute to the Malaysian economy without the right papers.

But most Malaysians couldn’t care less, and public sympathy was in short supply. Years of fear, discrimination and prejudice have hardened their hearts towards migrant workers, and prompted them to support the government’s action wholeheartedly.

The fact that migrant workers – the undocumented ones especially – are also victims of institutional injustice is hardly their concern.

The appalling conditions of Malaysia’s prison cells and detention centres are nothing new. In fact, human rights groups, such as Tenaganita and Suaram, have been presenting reports pertaining to the issue to successive governments, but their calls for corrective measures and reforms have fallen on deaf ears.

In 1995, the late Irene Fernandez of Tenaganita exposed to the media the ill treatment of Bangladeshi workers in detention – an extremely brave act at the time – only to be charged by the then Mahathir-Anwar government with “publishing false news maliciously”. It wasn’t until 2008 that she was acquitted and vindicated.

Owing to my past job working with refugees, asylum seekers and migrant workers, I have been in nearly all the major prisons and detention centres in peninsular Malaysia.

Interviews with them often took place right outside or close to the cells, giving me a first-hand experience of the ghastly conditions: dozens of men crowded into one cell with shared latrine facilities that were terribly inadequate and filthy, frequently causing outbreaks of leptospirosis and other skin diseases.

Physical or verbal abuse by prison personnel was not uncommon, and I quietly noted down all the incidents, to be reported to the office so that advocacy for improvement with the authorities could be done.

Muhyiddin Yassin should emulate compassion and empathy as exemplified by director-general of health Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah and refrain from stigmatising anyone. – The Malaysian Insight file pic, October 12, 2020.

Years after I have left the job, not only do the same challenges persist, but they appear to have gone from bad to worse based on a recent report by the Coalition of Sovereign Migrant Workers (Koalisi Buruh Migran Berdaulat), an Indonesian rights group, which revealed that even children in detention in Sabah were made to collect rubbish and clean the premises, while “up to 200 people were housed in a block measuring 10 by 15m, with just three toilet outlets that are dirty and clogged”, and “the detainees recounted having to suck the pipes to get water out of them”.

And one cannot talk about Sabah without revisiting the so-called Project IC in the 1990s through which a countless number of residents in southern Philippines were induced to come to Sabah for political purposes, most of whom were left to their own devices after elections were over. They stayed on and worked in various sectors, thereby contributing to Sabah’s economy in some way.

The biggest problem facing this group of people is the lack of access to health and education because of their irregular status. Given that matters of public health and prevention of diseases fall under the concurrent list of the ninth Schedule of the federal constitution, the federal law shall prevail should any inconsistency arise.

This is one reason why successive Sabah governments have been reluctant to grant undocumented migrants in the state access to public health facilities; others being the lack of political will and fear of political backlash from the electorate.

But none of the federal governments over the past decades have demonstrated political leadership in tackling the undocumented migrants issue in Sabah. Hence, when Muhyiddin resorted to scapegoating them for the soaring numbers of Covid-19 cases, he conveniently forgot he had been very much part of the governments before him, and it would not be unfair to apportion him with some of the blame.

And all the more so when one considers the fact that Muhyiddin had practically done nothing to resolve the issues of overcrowding in prisons and detention centres, as well as deaths in custody throughout his 22-month stint as home minister under the Pakatan Harapan administration.

Liew Chin Tong, once Muhyiddin’s comrade-in-arms, did not even lift a finger to remind him of the need for institutional reform, but spent time praising him and Mahathir profusely. Only now that he is calling for prison reform, and I just cannot help finding it a bit rich coming from him.

As Agora Society has said, the prime minister should emulate compassion and empathy as exemplified by director-general of health Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah and refrain from stigmatising anyone while the frontline workers are doing their utmost to combat the virus.

It is time for leadership, not politicking. Revising the outdated SOP is therefore the first step towards addressing the issue in a more holistic and professional manner. 

Last but not least, the government must stop the indiscriminate crackdown on undocumented migrants, decree that all public health services be open to all regardless of immigration status, and encourage everyone with symptoms to come forward for testing.

As I have persistently argued, humanity for all is the best way to protect ourselves, for the lesson of Sabah and Kedah has clearly shown that the entire society will eventually be made to bear the cost of selfish and short-sighted policies. – October 12, 2020.

* Josh Hong is a keen watcher of domestic and international politics, who longs for the day when Malaysians master the art of self-mockery. He has spent the last 15 years trying to win his feline friends’ favour as he considers it an endeavour more worthwhile than trusting politicians, aspiring also to be a tea and coffee connoisseur.

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