Mercy: Undocumented workers urged to get COVID-19 screening


A HUMANITARIAN group in Malaysia is urging undocumented workers, one of the country’s fringe communities, to get tested for the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

MERCY Malaysia, a volunteer relief organisation providing medical and humanitarian services domestically and internationally, has been conducting free testing for marginalized groups, such as refugees, since May.

Datuk Dr Ahmad Faizal Mohd Perdaus, president of MERCY Malaysia, said the effort is part of the Ministry of Health’s (MOH) strategy of target testing “vulnerable populations.”

On top of refugees, the programme also includes screening of migrant workers, but MERCY does not believe they have tested any undocumented workers thus far.

“MERCY Malaysia current programme does not have any specifics for undocumented migrant workers. Although if any of them were to turn up at our testing facilities, we would not turn them away,” he said, adding it was the ethical and humanitarian thing to do.

Experts have described undocumented workers as a blind spot in Malaysia’s COVID-19 response strategy. Fear of detention has sent many into hiding, which health officials fear may create a situation where community transmission would go unchecked.

Dr Faizal said the organisation could not guarantee safe passage for undocumented workers who came for testing but asked immigration authorities to be “understanding” of the public health effort.

He added the organisation would like to expand its operations to other communities with undocumented workers anywhere in Malaysia. However, they currently lacked the funding to do so.

“So all we can do is to appeal to people who are undocumented, if we have such programmes, to come forward and be tested,” he said.

To date, MERCY has conducted almost 1,300 tests on refugees, migrant workers and lower-income Malaysians in Ampang. No one has tested positive so far.

Rohingya refugees made up the majority of people who have been tested. Other refugees include those from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen.

Several told Bernama they took the test because they require it for work.

Although refugees are technically prohibited from working, they are not considered undocumented as long as they are registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Most do menial and dirty jobs for low pay, out of the public eye.

“They are in a very grey area,” said Sumitha Shaantinni Kishna, director of Our Journey, a migrants’ rights group.

As for documented migrant workers, Dr Faizal said screening them was the responsibility of employers. According to MERCY estimates, fewer than 10 people tested were migrants.

Governmental guidelines require employers to test their foreign employees and provide them with various ways to prevent transmissions, such as requiring accommodations that allowed for social distancing, hand-washing and good hygiene.

However, a few migrant workers and refugees said some employers were taking advantage of the pandemic to discriminate against their workers.

Abdul Shukur Abdul Salam, a Rohingya refugee, said his employer would not let him work until he got tested.

“I checked the prices here and I couldn’t afford to do it at the clinics. They want RM350,” he said, adding they then referred him to MERCY. The cleaner said he was supporting a wife and three children on a RM1,200 salary.

Mat, who hails from Surabaya, Indonesia, was not as lucky.

He did not get his test via MERCY’s programme, but instead, he had to pay RM400 for his own test at a private hospital in order to continue working.

“Everybody has had to pay for the test themselves,” he said, referring to his friends, some of whom were undocumented.