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To Win the Fight Against COVID-19, the Malaysian Government Must Not Penalise At-Risk Populations

In an abrupt reversal of its previous position, the government announced last week that all undocumented migrants identified during the Enhanced Movement Control Order (EMCO) would be sent to detention centres. This announcement, coupled with the new requirement that foreign workers in all sectors undergo mandatory screening for COVID-19 is counterproductive and poses serious repercussions. While on its own, the requirement of mandatory testing could have been a positive measure to ensure individuals at risk get tested, undocumented foreign workers will now be caught between a rock and a hard place–risking either the repercussions of not submitting to testing, or of being detained. Women and children from migrant and refugee groups face an even greater risk of harm from gender-based violence and a lack of adequate facilities in detention centres.

Malaysia’s early pandemic response strategically placed critical emphasis on the need to identify all persons infected with COVID-19, regardless of legal status. Undocumented migrants and refugees were encouraged to seek testing and treatment without fear of arrest. With the change in approach announced by Senior Minister (Security Cluster) Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob, undocumented migrants and refugees will be strongly disincentivised from coming forward for testing.

By pushing forward policies that link the spread of the virus primarily to refugee and migrant populations, the government is only further cultivating a climate of fear among groups who are most at-risk of infection. The threat of mass raids, arrest, and detention—from which neither pregnant women or young children are spared—will serve to deter more undocumented persons in other parts of the country from coming forward and delay the detection of new cases.

Instances this week of foreign workers escaping from quarantine or after undergoing swab tests demonstrates clearly how the climate of fear created is counterproductive and detrimental to both those who have been exposed to the virus, as well as those with whom such individuals may come into contact.

Quarantining large groups in cramped detention centres will strain government resources to implement social distancing measures and provide access to medical care, water, and hygiene facilities. Yet, without the dedication of these resources, there will be rampant violations of the human rights of detained individuals. Women and girls are especially at-risk, as they may be subject to sexual and gender-based violence inside crammed detention centres. They may also be affected by other forms of abuse, such as poor sanitation and a lack of adequate food, water, and medical care; this is particularly the case for pregnant and lactating women and girls having their periods.

The heart of the matter: discrimination against migrants and refugees in Malaysia

Singapore was headlined by western media as a country which had lost control of the virus outbreak by failing to protect its migrant workers. Despite this sobering lesson, the current response by Malaysian authorities to managing the virus transmission among refugee and migrant groups is to apply the heavy hand of the law to coerce and detain.

Refugees are a clearly defined category of persons in international law, based on their need to leave their home countries to seek refuge from danger. The key difference between refugees and migrants is that—unlike refugees—migrants are able to return to their countries without the fear of facing serious harm or violence, amounting to persecution. What is common for both refugees and migrants, however, is their exposure to criminalisation, dehumanisation, exploitation, and harm from a variety of local actors. They are also most at- risk of contracting the COVID-19 infection based on how they are often treated.

Cheap and plentiful migrant labourers brought in by Malaysian employers to power up the economy and service an urbane, cosmopolitan lifestyle for Malaysians are themselves expected to live in overcrowded facilities with low salaries. Many are not provided with proper documentation by employers, have poor access to proper healthcare, and are not given health and safety equipment when conducting difficult or dangerous jobs. Undocumented migrants are frequently subjected to exploitative practices by local employers who pay below the minimum wage or withhold salary payments.

Refugees though, more than any other vulnerable group in society, suffer additional hardship from government policies which exclude them from even being legally recognised. This exclusion pushes them into an informal economy to survive, where they become easy targets for abuses by employers and right-wing groups that are now politicising their presence through hate speech and fear-mongering.

In order to comprehensively address the current pandemic, as well as the larger issue of the treatment of migrants and refugees in Malaysia, which is being exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, we must utilise a “whole-of-government” and “whole of society” approach to put sustainable solutions in place.

The solution: a whole-of-government and whole-of-society approach

The World Health Organization (WHO) promotes the use of a whole-of-society and whole-of-government approach to prevent further transmission of COVID-19. This approach calls for meaningful engagement between key government agencies, businesses, non-governmental organisations, communities, and families to shape national pandemic preparedness and response plans. Successful management of the virus also requires regional and global cooperation, where affected countries share information and seek assistance from each other.

The quick adoption of the whole-of-government approach and international cooperation by the Malaysian government at the outset of the pandemic yielded some positive results. This method of comprehensive preparedness and planning should continue to be utilised, along with a whole-of-society approach, and viewed by the government as a pertinent management model for responding to other global issues similarly concerned with the preservation of human life, such as the refugee crisis.

Recommendations and the way forward

In light of the above, we urge the Malaysian government to take urgent action to review current policies which may roll back advances gained during the Movement Control Order (MCO). The government must institute measures that encourage undocumented persons from all parts of the country to come forward and cooperate with authorities by:

  • 1) Establishing a multi-stakeholder committee using the whole-of-government and whole-of-society approaches to develop a comprehensive national policy and governance framework for refugees and migrants in the country, with a particular component related to COVID-19. The government should prioritise this action, so as to put in place the required organisational and structural changes before the next pandemic strikes.


  • 2) Reinstating the government’s earlier policy of healthcare access to all undocumented persons by (a) removing the threat of arrest and detention through the immediate ceasing of raids in areas populated by migrants and refugees; (b) stepping up access to healthcare for undocumented persons, particularly women and children in need; (c) making available sufficient material in foreign languages to educate undocumented populations on daily habits to prevent further transmission of the virus; and (d) ensuring the safe and dignified treatment of all migrants and refugees as part of any response plan to curb COVID-19;


  • (3) Taking a firm position against racism, xenophobia, and discrimination involving migrants and refugees, including reports of exploitative practices by (a) investigating all reported incidents; (b) announcing swift action against individuals or groups responsible; and (c) affording protection to affected persons;


  • (4) Ensuring that Malaysian employers of foreign workers take steps to (a) create working or living conditions that comply with protocols to stop the transmission of the virus; (b) provide adequate salaries, meals and coverage of required healthcare; and (c) place infected workers in suitable quarantine facilities.

Adopting a comprehensive framework and putting the above recommendations in place will lead to a Malaysia that is safer and more inclusive.


About Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO)

Since 1982, Women’s Aid Organisation has provided free shelter, counselling, and crisis support to women and children who experience abuse. We help women and their children rebuild their lives, after surviving domestic violence, rape, trafficking, and other atrocities. Learning from women’s experiences, we advocate to improve public policies and shift public mindsets. Together, we change lives.

Call the WAO Hotline at 03 7956 3488 or SMS/WhatsApp TINA at 018 988 8058 if you or someone you know is experiencing abuse. For more information, visit

For more information, please contact:

Yap Lay Sheng, Senior Research and Advocacy Officer / 018 274 7042



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