COVID-19 Op-ed

Remembering the Undocumented of Sabah in a Panicked Malaysia

By Dr. Vila Somiah, Michelle R Usman and Anne Baltazar

Like Malaysia, many countries around the world have become devastated by the novel coronavirus, with hundreds and thousands experiencing not just illness, but also homelessness, displacement, loss of employment and an exponential number of deaths. The slow but steady surge of the virus has forced the Malaysian government to take action in mitigating the effects of the pandemic by issuing a Movement Control Order enforced on the 18th March 2020. This was important for citizens of the state to feel that drastic measures are taken to ensure their safety and wellbeing. But in Sabah, with an estimated one third of its 2.9 million population being non-citizens, this translated differently.Many without government identity documents are fearful of not being able to pay for a medical screening for Covid-19 or worse, detained at temporary detention centres. There were no civil rights for them to even speak of before the pandemic erupted. Now, in the face of the virus, their situation is exacerbated by the silence from the authorities. There is no way for the undocumented to find out whether there will be repercussions for them and their families should they even attempt to screen for the deadly virus.With such a massive undocumented population, the difficulty has always been keeping abreast with events and challenges in the community simply because we are left data blind. Population demographics have always been kept confidential and their numbers have been mere estimations by civil society groups. And while some of the greater issues surrounding undocumentedness have been their inability to access education, employment, shelter and documentation, healthcare is by far the most worrying of the pick in a Covid-19 stricken Malaysia.To be fair, there has been offered assistance from public health centres for foreigners. A directive from the Malaysian Ministry of Health has announced that all foreigners who exhibit symptoms or who have had direct contact with infected persons will not be charged a medical fee for the screening and subsequent admission into the hospital. Patients will only be charged a fee of RM40 if no symptoms are present. But the problem presented is two pronged.The first being the issue of labels. The circular did not specify if this necessarily applied to the undocumented. For many irregular migrants in Sabah, their legal status has always been considered fluid. While the they have gone by labels such as “asylum seekers”, “illegal immigrants”, “refugees”, “migrants” and “stateless” by academics, civil society groups and the government, their position remains irregular due to the multiplicity of overlapping statuses, and as such, the offer to screen can seem daunting as their legal status remain obscure over multiple generations.This bleeds into the second point, the lack of clarity on any official medical stand. The language of public health is very grey in relation to the undocumented. A circular by the Ministry of Health dated 21 March 2020 stated that they, in collaboration with UNHCR and a few other CSOs have reached out to the refugees and asylum seekers communities who are close contacts. However, several other undocumented persons who have expressed feeling unwell had informed us that they had difficulty looking for help in their respective districts. We welcome the efforts being carried out by the MOH but we believe that such an important measure ought to be a standard adopted by the government of Sabah state-wide.If fear continues to dominate the narrative of recovery, migrants would feel compelled to further retreat into hiding and evade any possible assistance provided for them. It is necessary to reach out to the undocumented through more effective means. If these communities are not empowered to come forward when they are infected, it will pose a greater danger to the larger population of Sabah, posing a threat to affecting a third wave of the virus.In Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we are reminded that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights  are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” Despite long standing socio-political complications surrounding undocumented residents in Sabah, it is of the utmost importance that we avoid hate and discrimination in these trying times. Those of irregular status have long been our waiters, domestic helpers, neighbours, nannies, caretakers of our elderlies, and friends. They too, like us, are subjected to a virus that knows no citizenship status, race, religion or culture, flattens the disparity and levels all people. Their illness is ours and therefore, our recovery must be theirs as well.*This article is an abridged version of Remembering Sabah’s undocumented in a panicked Malaysia — Vila Somiah, Michelle R. Usman and Anne Baltazar published by on 22nd March 2020**Dr. Vila Somiah is an anthropologist based at the University of Malaya. She is an exco member of the Sabah Human Rights Centre.**Michelle R Usman is a criminal lawyer based in Kota Kinabalu. She is best known for her volunteer work with the National Legal Aid Foundation and is a co-founder of the Sabah Human Rights Centre.**Anne Baltazar has more than 10 years of experience in NGOs focusing mostly on issues of women and children, statelessness and migration. She is also a co-founder of the Sabah Human Rights Centre. 

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