Medan, Indonesia – Earlier this month, dozens of Rohingya refugees landed on a desert island off the coast of Aceh province in Indonesia.
He the refugees had been at sea for more than 100 days, after leaving Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh on a wooden fishing boat, and were spotted on uninhabited Idaman Island by local fishermen who used the island as a rest stop between fishing trips.
On 5 June, just one day after their arrival, the 81 refugees, including children, had been vaccinated against COVID-19.
“The refugees were vaccinated in conjunction with the local government,” Al Jazeera Nasruddin, the 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 without food, water or electricity, so local residents brought them food and we also brought them 50 water tanks,” he added. “The feeling on the ground was that we needed to share our vaccines with refugees to protect them as well. No one complained that vaccines were being given to refugees.
Aceh Province has been widely praised by humanitarian groups, NGOs and the general public for vaccinating Rohingya refugees, but elsewhere in Southeast Asia, asylum seekers, refugees and migrant workers they have not been so lucky.
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 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 Convention Relating to Refugees, and while the government has said it will vaccinate everyone living in the country, it has also adopted a line. hard on undocumented migrants and refugees, including the Rohingya.
“In February, the cabinet decided that, in the interest of the recovery from the pandemic, all foreigners would receive free vaccination, including refugees and undocumented migrants,” said Lilianne Fan, co-founder and international director of the Foundation. Kuala Lumpur-based Geutanyoe told Al Jazeera.
“The COVID-19 immunization working group and Science Minister Khairy Jamaluddin, as coordinator of the vaccination program, have been the vocal advocates of this approach.
“However, the recent statement by the Minister of the Interior that those who do not have valid documents should not be vaccinated, combined with the repression of undocumented migration, contradicts the previous position of the government and simply lead more people to hide and halt the recovery from the Malaysian pandemic “.
Malaysia entered his second strict lock in early June after the increase in coronavirus cases, extending to the limit hospitals and intensive care units. The health ministry announced 6,440 new cases on Friday.
The government has indicated that it will facilitate the blockade as more people are vaccinated and Khairy has constantly stressed that the program will include everyone living in the country.
Why did the authorities spread disinfectants against undocumented migrants during last night’s operation?
What is the purpose of doing so? Will it not be harmful to your health?
– Norman Goh (@imnormgoh) June 7, 2021
But, as it did during the first closure last year, Malaysia has once again stepped up operations against undocumented migrants.
Malaysian Interior Minister Hamzah Zainudin has stated that PATI, the acronym for undocumented people in Malay language, will be detained and sent to immigrant detention centers.
This month, he stressed that undocumented migrants had to “surrender” before being vaccinated.
In early June, a video from state news agency Bernama showed 156 undocumented migrants from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar being sprayed with disinfectant in Cyberjaya, near Malaysia International Airport, after of being arrested.
Last week, the immigration department shared a post on its Facebook page, in the style of an action movie poster, titled “Rohingya ethnic migrants are not welcome.” . After a outcry, but not before it had been widely shared among refugee communities, it was suppressed.
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 safety.” and a risk to Malaysians ’health” and urged the government to rethink its approach.
“Inculcating fear through threats of arrest and detention of undocumented aliens is counterproductive in light of ongoing efforts to overcome the pandemic and achieve herd immunity,” he said, stressing clear differences in workers ’situations. migrants, refugees and asylum seekers.
The Rohingya accounted for approximately 57% of the 179,570 refugees registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Malaysia at the end of May.
According to unofficial estimates, the country may have up to three million undocumented immigrants, according to the International Organization for Migration.
Mixed messaging on refugee vaccines is not exclusive to Malaysia.
In a statement released in early June, the UN refugee agency warned that the shortage of vaccines in the Asia-Pacific region endangered the lives of refugees and asylum seekers.
“Refugees remain particularly vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19. Crowded 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 a 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, there are a number of COVID-19 cases in the fields increased dramatically in the last two months.
As of May 31, there were more than 1,188 confirmed cases among the refugee population, with more than half of these cases registered in May alone.
None of the Cox’s Bazar refugees have yet been vaccinated against COVID-19.
Mahecic added that in many countries in the Asia-Pacific region, there were not enough vaccines to do so, which left groups such as migrant workers and asylum seekers out.
UNHCR had noted a “worrying increase” in the number of coronavirus cases among refugees and asylum seekers in countries such as Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, he said.
It seems that Indonesia is at least starting to do more to solve the problem.
Other parts of the country have begun following Aceh’s leadership, according to 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 municipal government for making the vaccines available to the city’s refugee community,” Ariani Hasanah Soejoeti, IOM Indonesia’s national media and communications manager, told Al Jazeera. who added that all refugees in the city are now, at 18, vaccinated.
“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 nationality; nor our solidarity ”.