Adopt a humane approach to migrants – Azril Mohd Amin

Malaysia has always had a human rights record that withstands scrutiny, in particular, that of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) during its Universal Periodic Review (UPR), a unique process that involves a review of the human rights records of all 192 UN member states once every four years.

The tolerance and openness that defines us as an economically stable, politically savvy as well as a democratic nation are ones looked upon by others with envy and it is only natural that we want to build on this by bidding for a seat at the UNHRC next year. This record, particularly in the arena of migrant rights, deserves greater attention in light of the Covid-19 pandemic which has affected all of us, both citizen and migrant.

Malaysia’s Covid-19 problem is not a migrant problem, but if we are to conduct mass arrests of undocumented immigrants we may well make it one. Such a harsh measure will certainly not help limit the spread of the virus throughout the country, but could conceivably accelerate the rate of infection among those arrested; turning already overcrowded detention centres into disease incubators.

There are plenty of reasons why a tough approach to migrants simply do not work. For one, it is known that person-to-person transmission of the virus is most rapid in poorly ventilated enclosed spaces, particularly when those confined areas are unhygienic and full of people.

Carrying out massive sweeps of the estimated three million undocumented migrants in Malaysia would surely result in the spread of Covid-19 among the country’s poorest and most vulnerable population. As such, this strategy must be rethought in favour of a more humane, rights-based approach.

Lockdowns have been the norm in one form or another for more than a year. It is worth noting that the undocumented migrants who are present in Malaysia today, for the most part, have been here since before the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. Thus they are not the source of the virus and do not deserve to be scapegoated for its spread. Nor are they parasites of the labour force whom we can blame for our economic difficulties.

With few exceptions, they came to Malaysia seeking a better, safer life and contribute to our economy through toil and sweat, often with substandard remuneration. In many instances, because of the global pandemic, they cannot return to their home countries even if they wanted to.

Rather than taking a hostile stance towards undocumented migrants, the adoption of a more inclusive and respectful position, that is to say, one that does not demonise them, but understands their plight is the right way forward.

Our priorities must be in order and right now, they include the vaccination and minimisation of exposure to the Covid-19 virus for both citizens and migrants. If the authorities neglect to tend to the undocumented, both of these objectives will be undermined.

Not only will migrants hesitate to come forward to be vaccinated, but they will also likely try to make themselves scarce to avoid detention and no one can know in what conditions they will be forced to live to evade police sweeps.

This includes potentially being huddled in off-grid rooms in unhealthy obscurity where the virus may spread unchecked. And, of course, if they do go “offline” their underpaid labour will cease as well, which, though we are at loathe to admit, will only increase the pressure on our economy. Their mass arrests and incarceration are more likely to result in mass infection and widespread transmission of Covid-19, which puts all of us at greater risk.

Malaysians have coped brilliantly during this crisis, showing tremendous solidarity and cooperation for the greater good of our society. It would be a mistake to exclude migrants from this spirit of comradery and goodwill, especially in light of our next UPR which is due in 2023 as well as our intention to bid for a seat on the UNHRC in 2022.

Hostile attitudes towards migrants would put all this and our global image as a beacon of tolerance and respect for human rights in peril.

Having achieved so much when it comes to human rights generally, we must not risk what we have by appearing to neglect migrant welfare especially in view of the fact that they came to our shores in search of safety and security.

Our actions towards migrants must reflect our national character. As a diverse nation where many of our citizens have forefathers that hail from far off lands ourselves, it behoves us to be welcoming in the spirit of a country at the crossroads of Asia.

Let us, therefore, live up to our hospitality as a nation that is truly Asian, and show these migrants the compassion they deserve.

Azril Mohd Amin
Founder, Centre for Human Rights Research & Advocacy (Centhra)

*Published in New Straits Times.

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