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Groups slam policy forcing healthcare workers to report migrants

Free Malaysia Today logo Free Malaysia Today 25/11/2020 Predeep Nambiar
a group of people standing in front of a crowd: A group of migrant workers in Petaling Jaya being rounded up to undergo swab testing for Covid-19. © Provided by Free Malaysia Today A group of migrant workers in Petaling Jaya being rounded up to undergo swab testing for Covid-19.

PETALING JAYA: Several groups say it is no surprise that health authorities are having a hard time trying to get undocumented migrants to be tested for Covid-19 as policies effectively preventing them from getting healthcare have led them to go into hiding.

They were responding to a report about Sabah health authorities facing difficulty in getting migrants to come forward for testing as they feared being detained or deported.

The groups told FMT the country was now paying a heavy price due to a policy that required healthcare workers to report those without papers to police and the immigration authorities, according to the health director-general’s Circular 10 of 2001.

Galen Centre for Health and Social Policy CEO Azrul Mohd Khalib said the policy is a clear misuse of healthcare facilities “as an extension of immigration enforcement works against public health objectives, more so at the height of the pandemic”.

As a result, he said, there has been a loss of trust by migrant communities in government healthcare, causing them to go into hiding and leaving them vulnerable.

“This situation has also caused public health in Sabah to deteriorate, resulting in outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases, such as polio, and incidences of tuberculosis.

“In May, we warned authorities that implementing crackdowns on undocumented migrants during a public health emergency would have serious repercussions,” Azrul said.

Healthcare workers in a dilemma

Doctors Without Borders (MSF) Malaysia head of mission Dirk van der Tak said the current obligation to report undocumented migrants has left healthcare workers with a medical-ethical dilemma.

“Healthcare workers must always act in the interest of their patients, yet in Malaysia, they commit a crime if they don’t report their patient.

“Every month, MSF receives reports from patients who were refused admission or threatened to be reported to immigration due to their undocumented status. This includes pregnant women.

“The fact that public health officials in Sabah are facing complications in carrying out their work to battle the Covid-19 pandemic proves the difficult situation they are in as a consequence of the Malaysian government’s policies,” he said in an email to FMT.

Van der Tak said what was happening in Sabah was similarly experienced by MSF in the peninsula.

He said it was not in the public’s interest to exclude about two to three million migrants from healthcare.

“Such a scenario will hamper an effective response to pandemics and infectious disease outbreaks that require access to healthcare and testing for all,” he said.

Paying the price

North-South Initiative executive director Adrian Pereira said a “firewall” between healthcare services and security issues is needed so that public health officials are not required to report migrants to the authorities.

“Today, we can’t blame the migrants for fleeing. We are paying the price,” he said.

Migrant activist Sumitha Shaanthinni Kishna said that at the height of the pandemic, there should not be any place for an “us versus them” mentality in healthcare.

She said major improvements are needed in allowing foreign nationals, especially those from low-income groups, to access affordable healthcare.

“The fear of arrest during a pandemic has resulted in foreign parents not bringing their children for immunisation, including treatment for sickness. Women are having home births and this has often led to deaths,” she said.

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