Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) welcomes the Malaysian government’s reassurances that undocumented migrants who come forward for free COVID-19 vaccinations will not be arrested but urges this must also be reflected in its official health policy.
The Minister for Science, Innovation and Technology Khairy Jamaluddin stated this week that undocumented foreigners would not be apprehended or detained during COVID-19 vaccinations. But MSF is concerned the words don’t go far enough, as they are not reflected in Malaysia’s COVID-19 response plan. A Ministry of Health (MoH) circular issued on 21 January 2021 excludes migrants, refugees and asylum seekers from equal treatment, limits their access to public healthcare and stands in contradiction with the government’s efforts to ensure documented and undocumented foreigners feel safe when accessing COVID-19 treatment.
"The government announcement not to detain and deport people who come forward for the COVID-19 vaccine, regardless of whether they’re a resident, citizen, migrant worker, or a refugee or asylum seeker, is a step in the right direction towards an effective, inclusive public health response in battling the COVID-19 pandemic,” said MSF Head of Mission Dirk van der Tak.
“MSF stands ready to work with the government to support asylum seekers and refugees in getting vaccinated, but calls on the authorities to ensure that their public reassurances are reflected in official policies to avoid any confusion or fear,” he adds.
The new Fee Payments Circular overrides a Circular from 2020 that exempted documented foreign workers from charges for COVID-19 screening and testing. It makes migrants and their employers responsible for screening and medical fees and also refers to the existing Ministry of Health Circular 10/2001 that requires health care providers to report undocumented migrants and refugees to the police and immigration.
“In the interest of public health, and for a more coherent response where the governments words match its own policies, it should also repeal the Ministry of Health Circular 10/2001 to send a clear confirmation to refugees, asylum seekers and other migrant populations that they will not be arrested or detained when seeking healthcare, including for COVID-19 treatment or the vaccine, said MSF Head of Mission Dirk van der Tak.
“We fear that unless the laws, including the official response plan, aren’t updated then the contradiction between the official policies and government rhetoric will mean that people will be deterred from getting the vaccine, and any efforts to control the spread of the virus will be in vain,” added MSF Head of Mission Dir van der Tak.
MSF has had an operational presence in Malaysia since 2015. At a primary health clinic in Penang the organisation provides medical and mental health services to refugees, particularly Rohingya people, who are effectively excluded from work, healthcare and other social services. MSF also conducts mobile clinics in remote areas of the state and provides medical care at a number of Immigration Detention Centers. The MSF team is currently responding to the COVID-19 pandemic in Malaysia by referring suspected COVID-19 cases to government health facilities, providing COVID-19 health education to asylum seekers and refugees in addition to ensuring the continuity of care for patients under long-term treatment.
 On 21 January, a Circular by the Ministry of Health on APPLICATION OF FEE PAYMENTS FOR ADMISSION COST, COVID-19 DETECTION TEST FEES AND MEDICAL FEES OF FOREIGN EMPLOYEES PLACED IN QUARANTIN CENTERS AND LOW-RISK COVID-19 TREATMENT CENTERS (PKRC) OR ANY PLACE UNDER SECTION 15 PREVENTION AND CONTROL OF INFECTIOUS DISEASES ACT 1988 came in to effect.