The government of Malaysia, relatively new after a realignment in parliament led to a surprise and controversial new administration at the end of February 2020, has moved to crack down on migrant workers—claiming this is part of its response to the coronavirus pandemic.
On Friday, May 1, 2020, the Malaysian government office overseeing immigration conducted raids in areas of Kuala Lumpur with many migrant workers (story in the leading Malaysian government-aligned paper, New Straits Times), rounding up those claimed to be in the country illegally and laying the groundwork to expel them. Many have criticized the way these operations were conducted (story from the BBC), including an observer from Human Rights Watch who said they herding of large groups in close quarters was likely to increase the spread of the virus, not contain it, and Malaysian NGOs that say this will create a culture of fear (story from the online media outlet with old ties to the opposition MalaysiaKini). The government’s explanation (again from the New Straits Times) is that migrant workers would be hard to track and control if they became vectors of infection, so the government must act preemptively. The government is also saying (MalaysiaKini) that those migrants whose paperwork is not in order may leave without any penalties—as long as they get out of Malaysia.
This story has some resonances of the recent second wave of infections in Singapore, which centered on (legal) migrant workers with few health protections living in crowded dormitories (story from Bloomberg). It seems non-citizens are particularly vulnerable at this time because they do not receive health support from the governments in the places where they live, and this is more acute for low-income laborers.
Malaysia has been living under a Movement Control Order (basically, shelter-in-place orders) since March 18, 2020, but the Prime Minister has announced these will be loosened effective May 4 (story from Singapore’s state-backed paper, Straits Times). It is unclear how the round-up of migrant workers may be connected to loosening restrictions as Malaysia hopes to begin opening the economy.
Author: Kevin W. Fogg