Recent statements by Malaysia’s new health minister, Khairy Jamaluddin, that everyone in the country is eligible for a Covid-19 vaccine regardless of documentation status, are a welcome nod toward more equitable access to vaccines. But unless the government follows through with actions to back the words, Malaysia’s many undocumented migrants are unlikely to risk stepping forward to get the vaccine.
This is not the first time Khairy has assured undocumented migrants that it is safe to come forward. In February 2021, as science minister and coordinator of Malaysia’s Covid-19 vaccine program, Khairy announced that undocumented migrants seeking vaccines would not be arrested. But in June, that pledge was seriously undermined when Home Minister Hamzah Zainuddin announced a crackdown on undocumented workers, and the Immigration Department arrested and detained hundreds in a series of raids.
As a result, migrants without proper documentation are rightfully skeptical of any government promises. Last month, Ismail Sabri became the new prime minister, but little else has changed to offer comfort to undocumented migrants fearing arrest and deportation. Officials involved with the June raids remain in the government. Hamzah Zainuddin, who has long taken a hard line on refugees and undocumented migrants, was reappointed as home minister. The director-general of the Immigration Department also remains unchanged.
The assurances of one minister will not be sufficient to convince fearful migrants to come forward, meaning little progress in protecting migrants’ right to health, and controlling the spread of Covid-19. The prime minister needs to make clear that the entire government supports vaccination of those without documents, and demonstrate that those coming forward to be vaccinated will not be reported or arrested. Featuring this resolve in public awareness campaigns in multiple migrant languages is a first step, and the government should work with community groups and nongovernmental organizations to reassure the migrant population that they can be vaccinated without fear.
Ultimately, however, the government will have to establish trust with the affected migrant populations. To accomplish that, the government should announce a halt to the repeated raids on irregular migrants that have been a regular feature of the pandemic. Otherwise, the authorities will only force an already fearful population further into hiding, undermining migrants’ rights and the government’s efforts to control Covid-19.