Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Authorities seek to defuse pandemic ‘time bomb’ at Putrajaya’s city limits

One way is to invoke discretionary powers allowing the repatriation of undocumented migrants, bypassing detention at immigration depots.

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Putrajaya is considering using its discretionary powers to defuse what health authorities have warned is a potential Covid-19 time bomb just outside the administrative capital, MalaysiaNow has learnt.

High-level discussions in recent days have focused on the living conditions of thousands of undocumented migrant workers in nearby townships including areas surrounding Sepang, where KLIA is located.

But with the controversial mass arrests of foreign workers in central Kuala Lumpur at the height of the pandemic still fresh in memory, authorities feel there are other ways to prevent possible explosions of new virus clusters involving undocumented migrants.

“Many of them live in cramped conditions, just the recipe for a Singapore-like outbreak,” said a source familiar with the discussions, referring to the spike in Covid-19 cases involving foreign workers in the neighbouring state earlier this year.

One such location is Bandar Baru Salak Tinggi, just outside KLIA, where migrants are commonly seen living in cramped, makeshift hostels and rented rooms.

The area came under tighter restrictions on daily activities yesterday after an enhanced movement control order was declared.

“There is a potential time bomb here as many of these workers are employed at the airport as well as retail and shopping outlets in Putrajaya. An outbreak of the virus among them would be catastrophic in terms of health logistics,” the source said.

“Many of them live in cramped conditions, just the recipe for a Singapore-like outbreak.”

MalaysiaNow understands that one of the solutions on the table is to send home these migrants, most of whom lost their jobs and are trying to make ends meet on the peripheries of large towns and cities.

That means doing away with the normal immigration procedure of detaining them at depots, where hundreds of migrants contracted the virus in May this year, sparking criticism of the authorities.

Earlier this year, rights groups lashed out at the immigration authorities for detaining migrants during the height of the movement control order despite earlier assurances that the government would spare them during the pandemic.

They said detaining the migrants, who include women and children, put them at risk of contracting Covid-19 in the crowded conditions.

It is understood that the proposal to send undocumented migrants back to their countries, bypassing the detention centres as well as prosecution, is provided for under law.

The Immigration Act empowers the immigration director-general to deport any foreigner without waiting for court proceedings.

“Effectively, it works like an amnesty, except in this case the undocumented migrants will have no choice but to return to their countries,” said a source familiar with high-level discussions between various agencies involved in the Covid-19 battle.

It is learnt that the proposal is under serious consideration by Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, against a backdrop of past incidents where authorities were unable to effectively contain Covid-19 outbreaks at detention centres and prisons.

“What it does is cut the time-consuming red tape on legal procedures involving detained migrants, especially when time is precious in the battle against Covid-19,” the source added.

Under normal circumstances, authorities would liaise with foreign embassies while undocumented migrants are detained, but in this case there is a shortage of manpower and resources to do things the conventional way.

But there is also the question of whether foreign governments would be willing to accept their repatriated citizens.

“That’s a problem for another time. Right now, the concern is to avert a pandemic time bomb that would put both locals and foreigners in the country at risk of being infected,” the source said.

In May, hundreds of migrants detained at several immigration depots in the Klang Valley were infected with Covid-19, triggering concerns from migrant rights groups on the authorities’ handling of the community.

Most of the migrant workers were from Indonesia, Bangladesh, Myanmar, India and Pakistan.

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