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Coronavirus

Malaysia reopens as virus rips through migrant detention centers

Rights group says warnings about 'perfect hotbeds' went unheeded

A Malaysian health worker helps a migrant worker fill out a declaration form before a COVID-19 test in May. The authorities rounded up undocumented immigrants amid the coronavirus lockdown.   © Getty Images

KUALA LUMPUR -- Malaysia's movement restrictions expire on Tuesday, allowing a full-fledged economic restart after a nearly three-month hiatus due to the coronavirus.

But while Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin has declared the outbreak "under control," the government has urgent unfinished business: stopping the spread of COVID-19 in detention centers for immigrants without papers.

Over the weekend, Muhyiddin said the country had beaten the coronavirus and is moving into an economic recovery phase. Almost all business activity will return to normal starting Wednesday, albeit with stringent health guidelines. Exceptions include entertainment centers, massage parlors and sports with direct body contact, which will remain restricted.

"I am aware the government cannot control your lives forever to control the virus," the prime minister said.

The end of the "movement control order," which had been eased to an extent last month, also means Malaysians will finally be allowed to travel between states -- a glimmer of hope for the domestic tourism industry.

The silver linings come with dark clouds, however. To offset the impact of the lockdown, imposed back on March 18, the government has announced a staggering $69.2 billion worth of economic stimulus packages. With $10.5 billion in direct public outlays, the fiscal deficit is estimated to double to 6%.

The recovery will also depend on the spending power of Malaysians hit hard by retrenchment and pay cuts. By year-end, the unemployment rate is expected to swell to 5.5%, which equates to 860,000 jobless.

And Muhyiddin's weekend address did not acknowledge the surge in cases at detention centers for undocumented migrant workers. As of Monday, Malaysia had registered 8,329 total infections, including at least 735 at detention facilities. Of the detainee cases, 270 were reported last Thursday alone.

Malaysia is holding thousands of detainees, many of whom were rounded up in raids over the last three months. The fact that the coronavirus is spreading among these people comes as no surprise to rights advocates.

"Ever since the beginning of the MCO and even before the start of the raids, we had expressed worry and concern about migrants, refugees and undocumented persons in detention," said Glorene Das, executive director of Tenaganita, a Malaysian human rights organization.

"We had, over and over again, stressed that detention/holding centers are confined quarters, and the constant cycle of people entering and leaving a center creates a perfect hotbed for spreading the virus. Making matters worse, it is well-documented that our detention centers struggle to provide adequate health care to detainees."

On the contrary, Das said, the centers are known for "appalling and intolerable conditions."

Malaysia's situation has troubling echoes of problems in Singapore -- where explosive outbreaks in cramped dormitories for migrant workers account for over 90% of the city-state's infections.

A total of 2,405 foreigners had tested positive in Malaysia as of Monday -- making up nearly 30% of all cases -- with 1,378 recoveries and four deaths. So far, authorities say 4,807 undocumented immigrants and Immigration Department personnel at the detention centers have been screened.

Noor Hisham Abdullah, the health department director who has emerged as the star of Malaysia's virus fight, has also expressed concern about the confined spaces at the immigration depots. The Ministry of Health is looking at risks in other places, such as prisons and police station lockups, with cramped quarters.

Tenaganita wants the government to "make arrangements for safe repatriation of all undocumented persons upon testing negative and immediately release refugees and displaced people who are detained," Das said.

She conceded that the "presence of millions of undocumented persons in Malaysia" is an issue that warrants serious attention, but stressed that "this is not the time to do so when we have a serious pandemic that's threatening our lives."

Government officials aim to deport the undocumented foreign nationals to their respective countries this month. On Saturday, Malaysia started the deportation of 2,861 Indonesian citizens. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is in talks with Nepal and Bangladesh about repatriating 246 people to the former and 2,476 to the latter.

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