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To tackle COVID-19 outbreaks, ASEAN MPs call for more inclusive policies of migrant workers

As COVID-19 cases surge in Thailand and Malaysia, as well as elsewhere in the region, Southeast Asian lawmakers urge these governments to take more inclusive measures to protect everyone without discrimination, regardless of their migration status, ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) said on Monday (19 July)

A Bangkok construction site which has been put under lockdown following new disease control measures ordering the closure of all construction workers' camp

“While we are all affected by the pandemic, governments are excluding migrant workers from their social and public health policies in their response, leaving them behind and struggling to survive. 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 fear,” said Mercy Barends, an Indonesian Member of Parliament (MP) and APHR Member.

Amid record highs of daily COVID-19 cases and deaths in Thailand and Malaysia, migrants have been disproportionately affected. Widespread infections have been found among migrant worker communities due to over-crowded and unhygienic living conditions that increase the risk of COVID-19 spreading. Meanwhile, many migrant workers have lost their jobs and incomes, are facing severe financial challenges, and a shortage of food and clean drinking water. They continue to face discriminatory obstacles in receiving medical treatment and assistance from the government.

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

As a long-term solution, ASEAN Member States must improve social protection and implement labor reforms, in line with their commitments made in the ASEAN Declaration on Strengthening Social Protection. 

Last month, Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha announced the closure of camp sites for construction workers until the end of July, confining migrants in congested conditions with limited access to medicine and food. Shortly after, the Minister of Labor announced it would stop proactive COVID-19 testing and healthcare assistance for migrant workers in Bangkok and surrounding provinces. Meanwhile, approximately two million undocumented migrants are excluded from Thailand’s national COVID-19 vaccination programme, and migrant workers are not eligible for cash hand-out remedies.

In Malaysia, migrants are facing similar obstacles to receiving assistance, while ongoing raids, arrests and detentions by authorities are deterring migrants from coming forward for testing, medical treatment, or to be vaccinated. The fear of accessing essential services will likely result in an increase in undetected infections that can affect all communities, including through spikes in COVID-19 cases in overcrowded and unsanitary detention centres, as they did last year.

“These policies and actions contribute to the increasing stigma and hate speech against migrants online and offline. It is disgraceful that the governments of Thailand and Malaysia are contributing to divisive anti-migrant rhetoric, for what appears to be political gain at a time when they are coming under heavy criticism for their failure to contain the spread of the virus,” said Teddy Baguilat, former MP of the Philippines and APHR’s Interim Executive Director.

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