Medan, Indonesia – Earlier this month, dozens of Rohingya refugees landed on a desert 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 seen huddled on uninhabited Idaman Island by local fishermen using the island as a stop over. rest between fishing trips.
By June 5, just one day after their arrival, all 81 refugees, including children, had been vaccinated against COVID-19.
“The refugees were vaccinated together with the local government,” Nasruddin, humanitarian coordinator for 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 without food, water or electricity, so the neighbors brought them food and we also brought them 50 tanks of water,” he added. “The feeling on the ground was that we needed to share our vaccines with the refugees to protect them as well. No one complained that the vaccines were being given to the refugees. “
Aceh province has been widely praised by humanitarian groups, NGOs and the general public for vaccinating Rohingya refugees, but in other parts of Southeast Asia, asylum seekers, refugees and migrant workers have not been so lucky.
When Nasruddin assessed the 81 refugees on the island of Idaman, they told him that they had wanted to go to Malaysia. Some had relatives already living there, while others had the impression that the country had a more liberal policy towards refugees than its neighbors.
But like most Southeast Asian countries, Malaysia is not a signatory to the United Nations Refugee Convention, and while the government has said it will vaccinate everyone living in the country, it has also taken a hard line with undocumented immigrants and refugees, including the Rohingya.
“In February, the cabinet decided that for the sake of recovery from the pandemic, all foreigners would receive vaccinations free of charge, including refugees and undocumented migrants,” said Lilianne Fan, co-founder and international director of the Geutanyoe Foundation based in Kuala Lumpur. he told Al Jazeera.
“The COVID-19 Immunization Task Force and Science Minister Khairy Jamaluddin as the coordinator of the vaccination program have been strong advocates of this approach.
“However, the recent statement by the Interior Minister that those without valid documents should not be vaccinated, combined with a new crackdown on undocumented immigrants, contradicts the previous position of the government and will simply push more people underground and slow down the recovery from the Malaysian pandemic. “
Malaysia entered its second strict lockdown in early June after coronavirus cases spiked, pushing hospitals and intensive care units to the limit. The Health Ministry announced 6,440 new cases on Friday.
The government has indicated that it will ease the lockdown as more people are vaccinated, and Khairy has consistently emphasized that the program will include everyone living in the country.
Why did authorities spray disinfectants on undocumented immigrants during the raid last night?
What is the purpose of doing it? Isn’t that bad for your health?
– Norman Goh (@imnormgoh) June 7, 2021
But as it did during the first lockdown last year, Malaysia has once again stepped up its operations against undocumented immigrants.
Malaysian Interior Minister Hamzah Zainudin has stated that PATI, the acronym for undocumented in the Malay language, will be detained and sent to immigration detention centers.
This month, he stressed that undocumented immigrants had to “give up” before being vaccinated.
In early June, a video from the state news agency Bernama showed 156 undocumented immigrants from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar being sprayed with disinfectant in Cyberjaya, near Malaysia’s international airport, after being detained.
Last week, the immigration department shared a post on its Facebook page, in the style of an action movie poster, with the title “Rohingya ethnic migrants are not welcome.” After a protest, but not before it had been widely shared among refugee communities, it was removed.
Malaysia’s Human Rights Commission on Monday expressed concern over “recent statements portraying migrants, undocumented or irregular migrants, refugees and asylum seekers as a threat to the country’s security and a risk to the health of Malaysians.” and he urged the government to rethink its approach.
“Infusing fear through threats of arrest and detention of undocumented aliens is counterproductive in light of the ongoing efforts to overcome the pandemic and achieve herd immunity,” he said, highlighting the clear differences in the situation of migrant workers, refugees and asylum seekers.
The Rohingya made up about 57 percent 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 that the country may have up to three million undocumented immigrants, according to the International Organization for Migration.
The mixed messages about vaccines for refugees are not unique to Malaysia.
In a statement issued in early June, the UN refugee agency warned that vaccine shortages in the Asia Pacific region were putting the lives of refugees and asylum seekers at risk.
“Refugees remain especially vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19. Overcrowded environments, along with limited water and sanitation facilities, can contribute to increased infection rates and an exponential spread of the virus, ”UNHCR spokesman 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 increased dramatically in the last two months.
As of May 31, more than 1,188 confirmed cases had been recorded among the refugee population, and more than half of these cases were recorded 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, leading to groups such as migrant workers and asylum seekers being marginalized.
UNHCR has observed a “worrying increase” in the number of coronavirus cases among refugees and asylum seekers in countries such as Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, it said.
Indonesia, at least, seems to be starting to do more to address the problem.
Other parts of the country have started to follow Aceh’s lead, according to the IOM, which vaccinated more than 900 refugees in the Indonesian city of Pekanbaru in Riau province in early June in collaboration with the local government.
“IOM applauds the response of the Pekanbaru city government for making vaccines available to the refugee community in the city,” Ariani Hasanah Soejoeti, IOM Indonesia national media and communications officer, told Al Jazeera, adding that all refugees in the city for the 18-year-old have already received vaccinations.
“Vaccines are one of our most critical and cost-effective tools for preventing outbreaks and keeping people and therefore entire communities safe and healthy,” he said.
“The virus knows no borders or nationalities; and neither does our solidarity. “