MSF calls for repeal of law to allow refugees to test for Covid-19

The policy that limits access to essential care should be changed as it negatively impacts public health measures by marginalising vulnerable groups, says Lau


DESPITE the government’s move to introduce additional measures and screening process to contain the Covid-19 pandemic from spreading further, it is still a catch-22 situation for undocumented migrants and refugees in the country to get tested for the disease.

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) or Doctors Without Borders head of mission in Malaysia Beatrice Lau said while screening for the disease is pertinent, the group is still in constant fear of being arrested and detained by the authorities.

Therefore, Lau has called for an unequivocal repeal of Circular 10/2001, a law that compels healthcare providers to report “illegal immigrants” seeking healthcare services to the police and immigration authorities.

“Such a move could help prevent similar delays in seeking healthcare in the future, ensuring effective public health for the entire population,” she said in a statement recently.

As it is, migrants and refugees are always living in fear at home and in the streets, especially with frequent raids held by the immigration officers even at healthcare facilities.

Lau said the repeal would allow healthcare providers to practise their professional and ethical obligation in providing medical care to patients in need, regardless of immigration status.

She said the 20-year-old policy that limits access to essential care should be changed as it negatively impacts public health measures by marginalising vulnerable groups.

“To remove the remaining barriers to healthcare, therefore, next steps should include access to subsidised health insurance and legal status for asylum-seekers in Malaysian law, which exempts them from the Immigration Act,” she added.

However, she commended the government’s decision to ensure free access to Covid-19 testing for all as asylum seekers are normally required to pay much higher for healthcare and a 50% discount for documented refugees is still based on foreigner rates.

One example of how the system did not seem to function well was when attendees of the tabligh gathering at the Sri Petaling Mosque in February were advised for screening, including several hundred refugees and migrants, some without legal documents.

The government’s policy brings little reassurance for these communities even after Defence Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob announced to neither look into legal status nor take any action for being in the country without legal status during the screening.

Malaysian Bar president Salim Bashir said the government should also take a proactive humanitarian stand by allowing all migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers regardless of their status, access to free screening and treatment for the virus without the fear of arrest and detention.

“During these challenging times, it is imperative that the government extends compassion towards migrants and refugees which represent one of the most vulnerable groups of people in the country.

“We do not want to see a situation where persons uncertain of their immigration status are afraid to come forward for screening or seek treatment when they become ill,” he said in a recent statement.

Salim said the move will hugely encourage those who are infected and ill to come forward, especially when many are living in places that can be potential breeding grounds for the virus.

“It is unfortunate that due to inadequate housing and sanitary facilities, many migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers find themselves living in crowded dwellings,” he said.