Medan, Indonesia – Earlier this month, dozens of Rohingya refugees landed on a deserted island off the coast of Indonesia’s Aceh province.
the refugees had been at sea for more than 100 days, having left Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh in a rickety wooden fishing boat, and were sighted huddled on the uninhabited island of Idaman by local fishermen who used the island as a stopover between fishing trips.
By June 5, just a day after their arrival, the 81 refugees, including children, had been vaccinated against COVID-19.
“The refugees were vaccinated in collaboration with the local government,” Nasruddin, humanitarian coordinator of the Geutanyoe Foundation, an NGO that provides education and psychosocial support to refugees in Indonesia and Malaysia, told Al Jazeera.
“When we found them, they were in a crisis situation on the island with no food, water or electricity, so local residents brought them food and we also brought them 50 water tanks,” he said. he added. “The feeling on the ground was that we had to share our vaccines with the refugees in order to protect them as well. No one complained that the vaccines were being given to the refugees.
Aceh province has been widely praised by aid groups, NGOs and the general public for vaccinating Rohingya refugees, but elsewhere in Southeast Asia asylum seekers, refugees and migrant workers do not have not had that chance.
When Nasruddin assessed the 81 refugees on Idaman Island, they told him they wanted to go to Malaysia. Some had family members already living there, while others felt the country had a more liberal policy towards refugees than its neighbors.
But like most countries in Southeast Asia, Malaysia is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention and although the government has said it will vaccinate everyone living in the country, it has also taken a hard line on undocumented migrants and refugees, including the Rohingya.
“In February, the cabinet decided that in the interests of recovery from a pandemic, all foreigners would be vaccinated free of charge, including refugees and undocumented migrants,” Lilianne Fan, co-founder and international director of the Kuala Lumpur-based Geutanyoe Foundation, told Al Jazeera.
“The COVID-19 Vaccination Working Group and Science Minister Khairy Jamaluddin, as the vaccination program coordinator, have been strong supporters of this approach.
“However, the Home Secretary’s recent statement that valid undocumented people should not be vaccinated, combined with a new crackdown on undocumented migrants, contradicts the government’s previous position and simply goes push more people into hiding and slow down Malaysia’s pandemic recovery.
Malaysia has entered its second strict confinement in early June after the surge in coronavirus cases – stretching hospitals and intensive care units to the limit. The Ministry of Health announced 6,440 new cases on Friday.
The government has indicated that it will facilitate the lockdown as more people are vaccinated, and Khairy has always stressed that the program will include everyone living in the country.
Why did the authorities spray disinfectants on the undocumented migrants during the operation last night?
What’s the point of doing it? Will it not be harmful to their health?
– Norman Goh (@imnormgoh) June 7, 2021
But as it did in the first lockdown last year, Malaysia has once again stepped up its operations against undocumented migrants.
Malaysian Interior Minister Hamzah Zainudin said PATI – the acronym for undocumented in Malay – will be detained and sent to migrant detention centers.
This month, he stressed that undocumented migrants must “surrender” before being vaccinated.
In early June, a video from the official Bernama news agency showed 156 undocumented migrants from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar being sprayed with disinfectant in Cyberjaya, near Malaysia’s international airport, after their arrest.
Last week, the Immigration Department shared a post on its Facebook page – designed as a poster for an action movie – with the headline “Rohingya Ethnic Migrants Not Welcome.” After an uproar, but not before it was widely shared among refugee communities, it was deleted.
The Malaysian Human Rights Commission expressed concern on Monday over “recent statements describing migrants, undocumented or irregular migrants, refugees and asylum seekers as a threat to safety and security. security and a risk to the health of Malaysians ”and urged the government to rethink its approach.
“Instilling fear through threats of arrest and detention of undocumented aliens is counterproductive in light of ongoing efforts to overcome the pandemic and achieve collective immunity,” he said, stressing the obvious differences between the situations of migrant workers, refugees and asylum seekers.
The Rohingya made up about 57% of the 179,570 refugees registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Malaysia at the end of May.
Unofficial estimates suggest the country could have as many as three million undocumented migrants, according to the International Organization for Migration.
The mixed message about vaccinating refugees is not unique to Malaysia.
In a statement released in early June, the United Nations refugee agency warned that a vaccine shortage in the Asia-Pacific region was endangering the lives of refugees and asylum seekers.
“Refugees remain particularly vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19. Overcrowded environments, coupled with limited water and sanitation facilities, can contribute to rising infection rates and exponential spread of the virus, ”UNHCR spokesperson Andrej Mahecic said in the statement.
There are nearly 900,000 Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar, making it the largest and most densely populated group of refugee camps in the world. According to Mahecic, the number of COVID-19 cases in the camps has dramatically increased in the past two months.
As of May 31, there had been more than 1,188 confirmed cases among the refugee population, with more than half of those cases registered in May alone.
None of the refugees in Cox’s Bazar have yet been vaccinated against COVID-19.
Mahecic added that in many countries in the Asia-Pacific region there were not enough vaccines for everyone, which led to the sidelining of groups such as migrant workers and asylum seekers.
UNHCR has observed a “worrying increase” in the number of coronavirus cases among refugees and asylum seekers in countries like Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, he said.
Indonesia, at least, appears to be starting to do more to tackle the problem.
Other parts of the country have started to follow Aceh’s example, according to IOM, which in early June vaccinated more than 900 refugees in the Indonesian town of Pekanbaru, in Riau province, in collaboration with the local government. .
“IOM applauds the response of the Pekanbaru municipal government for making vaccines available to the refugee community in the city,” Ariani Hasanah Soejoeti, IOM national media and communications manager, told Al Jazeera. Indonesia, adding that all refugees in the city over the age of 18 have now received vaccines.
“Vaccines are one of our most critical and cost-effective tools for preventing epidemics and keeping individuals and therefore entire communities safe and healthy,” she said.
“The virus knows no borders or nationalities; and neither does our solidarity.