PUTRAJAYA: The Malaysian government has defended its decision to detain illegal immigrants amid the COVID-19 pandemic, adding that they cannot be accorded special treatment because they have broken the country's immigration laws.
Senior Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob said in a press conference on Wednesday (May 27) that it is against the law to allow illegal immigrants to go free.
He was responding to criticisms by the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (SUHAKAM) against the arrests of illegal immigrants at the time of a worldwide health crisis.
READ: Malaysia reports 187 new COVID-19 cases, majority are illegal migrants held at detention centre
“The thing is SUHAKAM may be confused. There are two categories of foreign workers, one of them have permits.
“This category is protected. They are given housing. We know we need them, so we take good care of them and we comply by what is said by the International Labour Organization,” he said.
Mr Ismail Sabri, who is also the defence minister, explained that it is the second category of immigrants that is problematic.
“Because they come in without documents. These are those who were detained.
“Even then we looked after them, got them tested and treated. But, their status remains illegal, they are here illegally,” he stressed.
Mr Ismail Sabri added that the Malaysian government has discussed with the home countries of the detained immigrants to take them back.
“We don’t even want to arrest them, but we can’t give them special treatment because they went against the laws of the country,” he said.
He further explained that the detention of illegal immigrants that took place in areas placed under enhanced movement control order (EMCO) was not by intention.
“For example, at the EMCO, 586 illegals were found in Selangor Mansion.
“When the EMCO was over, we wanted to open up the barbed wires for the people to move around, but the illegals don’t have travel documents. If we let them go then we are wrong by immigration laws. That is why we brought them to the depot,” he said.
READ: Ending of Malaysia’s movement control order will depend on how far citizens can conform to it, says PM Muhyiddin
COVID-19 clusters have been identified at three immigration detention centres in Malaysia since last week. As of Wednesday, a total of 383 foreigners at the detention depots tested positive for the coronavirus.
The cumulative total in Malaysia is 7,619 cases, with 115 deaths. The country recorded 15 new cases on Wednesday, the lowest since the movement control order was put in place on Mar 18.
Mr Ismail Sabri stressed that the immigration officers had not raided homes as claimed by various quarters, as these illegal immigrants were found in places like alleyways.
He said that some non-governmental organisations were trying to be "heroes" in the wrong circumstances.
ARREST OF IMMIGRANTS WILL RESULT IN RELUCTANCE TO BE TESTED: SUHAKAM
In a May 3 press statement, SUHAKAM said that the government should not have arrested the illegal immigrants after giving assurances that they would not be arrested should they step forward for screening.
“At the start of the second wave of the pandemic in March, the Minister of Defence assured that no one coming forward to be tested or seeking medical treatment for COVID-19 will be arrested based on their immigration status. This was further reinforced by Ministry of Health’s announcement that treatment would be free for anyone, including foreigners, showing symptoms.
“Despite the government’s assurances ... persistent fears remain amongst the vulnerable communities, including migrants, refugees and the stateless, on possible negative repercussions; resulting in the reluctance of many to come forward for testing,” said the statement.
READ: Malaysia still using hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19 patients; health ministry monitoring side effects
On April 20, Health Ministry director-general Noor Hisham Abdullah urged all foreign workers to step forward to be screened, following the increasing number of positive COVID-19 cases at the Kuala Lumpur Wholesale Market in Selayang.
“Even if your visiting pass or travel visa is no longer valid, please step forward and get screened. What is important is to ensure these foreign workers do not get infected or infect others,” he said.
However, on April 29, Mr Ismail Sabri announced that all undocumented migrants found in red zones across the country would be placed in detention centres or special prisons gazetted by the Ministry of Home Affairs.
Beginning May 1, the Immigration Department and the police had raided COVID-19 red zones and arrested undocumented migrant workers.
Three buildings placed under EMCO in Kuala Lumpur - Selangor Mansion, Malaysian Mansion and Menara One City - were raided.