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UNHCR-GoM joint action to prevent, manage Covid-19 infections among refugees


UNHCR-GoM joint action to prevent, manage Covid-19 infections among refugees

13 April 2020
Joint teams reaching out to refugee communities on covid-19 prevention and testing.


Kuala Lumpur, 8 April 2020 – In an unused loading bay of a wholesale market in the neighbourhood of Selayang, Kuala Lumpur, a group of Rohingya refugees gather. These dozen or so individuals are representatives of the Rohingya refugee community in that area, all wearing masks and appropriately distancing themselves from each other.

They had gathered for an extraordinary meeting with UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, law enforcement authorities, and the Ministry of Health to address the Covid-19 outbreak in the country.

A spokesperson from the Royal Malaysian Police addressed the crowd, reassuring them that the meeting was only to address the public health concerns around the outbreak.

“We are here to help. Please don’t be scared. We are not here to arrest anyone who is undocumented,” he said. “We are here to work with you to prevent infection of Covid-19 in your community, and to help keep you safe.”

Since 21 March 2020, just over one week after Malaysia implemented a nation-wide Movement Control Order, in a bid to stem the spread of Covid-19 infection in the country, UNHCR and its NGO partners have joined law enforcement personnel and district health officers to reach out to refugee communities in neighbourhoods across the country regarding Covid-19 prevention and screening.

There are some 180,000 refugees registered with UNHCR in Malaysia. The community is an urban one, living in towns and cities across the country. Providing information to this widely-spread population is a challenge, especially at a time of a health emergency.

“Since the start of the outbreak, UNHCR has been coordinating closely with the Ministry of Health and the Crisis Preparedness and Response Centre (CPRC) in order to ensure that all refugee and asylum-seeking communities are included in the Government’s national response measures, and to prevent infection from spreading among the communities,” said UNHCR public health officer, Dr Susheela Balasundaram.

In recent weeks, joint teams made up of UNHCR and district health officers, together with UNHCR’s NGO partners IMARET, Muslim Relief Agency, and MERCY Malaysia, have been reaching out to refugees across the country.

The teams provide information on Covid-19, arrange for testing if refugees present symptoms of Covid-19 infection, and advise refugee communities to comply with the Government’s Movement Control Order.

Since the early stages of the outbreak in the country, the Malaysian Government had taken the important decision to provide free testing and treatment for any foreigners with Covid-19 symptoms. The Government also gave reassurances that undocumented foreigners who come forward for testing and treatment would not face arrest for Immigration offences. 

“We commend the Government of Malaysia for its inclusive policy of making screening and treatment free for all foreigners, including refugees and asylum-seekers,” said Dr Balasundaram.

“Inclusive and non-discriminatory policies will only strengthen the country’s response. The Covid-19 outbreak clearly demonstrates that we are all connected, regardless of who we are. It is in everyone’s interest that all people, especially the most vulnerable – including refugees, asylum-seekers and the stateless – have access to health services.”

UNHCR has taken a range of measures to support the Government’s response in containing the outbreak.  This includes ensuring that updated information is distributed to refugees quickly in languages they understand.  UNHCR set up the information portal where all refugees, asylum-seekers and organisations supporting refugees can get information on where to find help and services.

UNHCR has also established several Hotlines in seven different languages for refugees who may not be able to access the national crisis Hotlines, and make available UNHCR interpreters to provide translation services at public hospitals for refugees.