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ASEAN lawmakers seek equal aid for migrants amid pandemic

Regional rights body accuses Malaysia, Thailand of neglecting foreign workers in their social, vaccination policies

ASEAN lawmakers seek equal aid for migrants amid pandemic

An immigration truck believed to be carrying Myanmar migrants is seen heading towards the naval base in Lumut, outside Kuala Lumpur, on Feb. 23 before their repatriation. Malaysia has come under fire for its treatment of migrant workers during the Covid-19 pandemic. (Photo: AFP)

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), particularly Malaysia and Thailand, should adopt more inclusive measures to protect migrant workers during the Covid-19 outbreak, regional legislators say.

Migrant workers have often been ignored or given little priority in aid packages and vaccination drives initiated by governments battling the pandemic, according to the Jakarta-based ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) group.

“While we are all affected by the pandemic, [ASEAN] governments are excluding migrant workers from their social and public health policies in their response, leaving them behind and struggling to survive,” Mercy Chriesty Barends, an Indonesian parliamentarian and APHR spokeswoman, said in a July 19 statement.

“We will never recover from this health crisis if we do not provide care for everyone, including all migrants. Government policies must ensure that they have equal access to immediate aid, testing, treatment and vaccinations without discrimination.” 

According to the APHR, migrant workers have been disproportionately affected. Many infection clusters have been found among migrant worker communities due to overcrowded and unhygienic living conditions that increase the risk of catching the virus, while many migrant workers have lost their jobs and incomes.

This has often been the case in Thailand, where the virus has spread quickly among migrant worker communities working on construction sites and in factories, and in Malaysia, the APHR said.

Migrants who have contracted Covid-19 should be treated immediately, and all should be granted access to vaccinations in the same manner as citizens

“The governments of Thailand and Malaysia must include migrant workers in social protection measures on an equal basis to those of its citizens and ensure that the criteria for accessing essential services are not based on nationality, citizenship or immigration status,” the group said.

“Migrants who have contracted Covid-19 should be treated immediately, and all should be granted access to vaccinations in the same manner as citizens.”

The APHR called for a halt to such discrimination and urged ASEAN member states to improve social protection and implement labor reforms in line with commitments made in the 2013 ASEAN Declaration on Strengthening Social Protection.

The declaration commits member states to providing equitable access to social protection for poor and disabled people, the elderly, children, young people, migrant workers and other vulnerable groups.

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In Malaysia, unregistered migrants face not only these obstacles to receiving assistance but also face arrest and detention by authorities, which deters them from seeking testing, medical treatment or vaccinations.

Speaking with UCA News over the phone, Alex Ong, Migrant Care's Malaysia representative, said the Malaysian government has prioritized its citizens, particularly the elderly, for its Covid-19 vaccination program.

“Only documented migrant workers can be vaccinated,” he said.

“It is very difficult for undocumented migrant workers to get access to the Covid-19 vaccination program. Not to mention raids by immigration officers. Undocumented migrant workers who lose their jobs have no money and are struggling to survive.”

I agree that companies need to survive. But cutting their workers’ salary that much does not make sense

He claimed that many companies in Malaysia have cut their workers’ salaries by up to 70 percent in order to survive the pandemic.

“I agree that companies need to survive. But cutting their workers’ salary that much does not make sense,” he said, adding that the minimum monthly salary is 1,200 ringgit (about US$284).

Echoing APHR’s remarks, he urged the Malaysian government to treat all people equally.

“There must be no discrimination between documented and undocumented migrant workers,” he said. “What we are fighting against is the Covid-19 pandemic and everyone can be infected.”

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