Sabah’s undocumented migrant community comes out of the shadows, setting aside fear and distrust for Covid-19 jabs

·8-min read
Those with appointments on MySejahtera and walk-ins and foreigners are in separate halls.
Those with appointments on MySejahtera and walk-ins and foreigners are in separate halls.

KOTA KINABALU, Aug 22 — Late last month, 29-year-old waitress Bibi* received her vaccine appointment on the MySejahtera app.

She was ecstatic at first, but after sharing the news with her friends and relatives, the initial excitement died down, and three days later, she did not show up for her appointment.

Bibi is a Filipina, born to parents who sought refuge in Sabah. Despite having lived here all of her life, even attending school, she still does not have valid residence documents. Like many, her life and livelihood were severely impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic and ensuing lockdown, and she has been without a steady income for months.

“I wanted to get the vaccine so I can feel safe going to work and getting around. I live in close proximity to other people, and even though we try to be safe, it is impossible to maintain a distance when you live in such a cramped space.

“But when I got the appointment, one of my housemates said, ‘Aren’t you afraid you’ll get caught? Then I started to think and I got worried. In the end, after thinking some more, I couldn’t take the risk. I just thought it’s better I just stay quiet and try not to catch the virus,” she said.

Bibi is probably one of hundreds of thousands of foreign immigrants who have lived in Sabah for years without proper documentation. They work as maids, cleaners, carpenters, construction workers, waiters, cooks, cashiers, hawkers, caregivers and more, all embedded in the fabric of society and who call Sabah home.

There are no official numbers, but it is estimated that there are as many as one million people living in Sabah with either no documentation or some form of expired pass.

Many have been here for at least a generation, but without a valid visa, they are still afraid to come forward for fear of arrest, which trumps their fear of getting infected and falling sick. Some also do not believe in the need for vaccination, having gone most of their life without any.

To Bibi, the possibility of being arrested, sent to a lock-up, and deported to the Philippines — a country that she is unfamiliar with and whose language she does not speak — was too much to bear and she decided to forgo her vaccination appointment.

Her Sabah friends, however, did not give up trying to convince her that she needed to get vaccinated. One of them sought assurance from a friend who is a doctor working at one of the vaccination centres (PPV) who said that any rumours of foreigners being arrested were untrue.

“They kept assuring me it would be OK. So one day last week, they drove me there, and had to drag me out of the car to get registered and vaccinated. The whole time I was so nervous and anxious I nearly fainted,” she said.

She was among a handful of people who showed up at the centre without an appointment with the hopes of lucking out by getting a slot from a “no-show”.

“Every time I saw someone in uniform, I would start getting very nervous. But no one really came up to me or anything. I told them I was not a citizen, and they pointed me to a section. I was given a form, queued, spoke to a doctor about my health, and then queued again. When I finally walked out of there after getting jabbed, I was so relieved,” she said.

Bibi got her jab two weeks ago and has been telling her friends who are of similar status about her experience. Since then, she said more people like her have braved their fears and gone ahead with their vaccinations.

“It’s such a simple thing, getting a jab, but it feels like gathering up the courage to go to war. You don’t know your enemy. You don’t know if you’ll be able to return to see your family,” says Dan*, a Suluk Filipino who also faced the same trepidation.

Dan’s passport expired along with his right to stay in the country last year, and he put off getting vaccinated until he read in the papers that walk-ins were accepted at all vaccination centres and that foreigners were also welcome.

“I wasn’t sure at first but people were saying it’s true and there wouldn’t be any arrests. So I went, but I was nervous the whole time and I was always looking out for immigration or police. I guess I was ready to run if I had to, but there were many others there who were like me,” he said.

The state authorities have repeatedly said that any resident of Sabah is eligible to get vaccinated for free, in the interest of achieving herd immunity as soon as possible.

“The general rule is that every Sabah resident irrespective of their status needs to be vaccinated to enable us to be relatively safe. The golden rule is that Malaysian citizens should always be given priority to be vaccinated but nobody is safe until everyone is safe,” said Sabah Covid-19 spokesman Datuk Seri Masidi Manjun.

He stopped short of saying outright that the police and immigration would not arrest an undocumented migrant coming to get vaccinated but indicated that this would not be the case as the government wants to ensure that the significant migrant community is inoculated.

“The plan is to do an outreach programme for them, probably with the assistance of an NGO. They need to be vaccinated because they are already living among us. The virus doesn’t differentiate between citizen or non-citizen or even PTI,” he said, using the Malay initials for undocumented migrant.

Dr Pathman Arumugam concurred, saying that by policy, all vaccination centres in Malaysia will accept foreigners, even those without valid identification documents.

He is the public health specialist for the Kota Kinabalu district health office who is also in charge of the vaccination process at the Sabah International Convention Centre (SICC).

“Not only SICC, but those PPVs in Malaysia who accept walk-ins will follow the same policy. We have a special website created by CITF Malaysia. We upload some of their basic details on the website and give them a special identification number.

“The rest of the process is the same as everyone else. In the end, they receive their physical vaccination card,” he said.

When asked what the situation is on the ground is like, Dr Pathman said it was a safe zone, and no action will be taken against the migrants.

“No immigration officer on site to arrest them. Our goal is to vaccinate the entire Sabah and to help reduce morbidity and mortality due to Covid by vaccinating everyone. We also want to achieve herd immunity as soon as possible.

“We have vaccinated a lot of immigrants already. No problem so far. In fact, they are very nice and are just happy to be vaccinated,” he said.

He said before the state government officially announced that walk-in jabs would be available, only a handful of foreigners without papers dared to show up.

“But since the announcement on August 12 in the papers, the numbers have gone up significantly. About 25 per cent of our daily total jabs yesterday were for those without documents,” he said.

To address the huge crowd, Dr Pathman said that the centre has employed crowd control measures and walk-ins must take numbers.

“We use a numbering system. We give out numbers and tell people to come back according to their time slot. In an hour, we cater to about 200 people only so that all SOP and distancing can be followed,” he said.

People like Dan who was among some 4,000 people who received jabs at SICC yesterday said the queues were long but under control.

“To be honest, the crowds were scary at first. But I thought that it was well managed and we were treated well even though the queues were long. There was only a simple form, and then we just queued before speaking to a doctor,” said Dan.

“I hope by the time I come for the second dose, the crowds won’t be as big then,” he said, adding that he felt people, especially those like him, who no longer have a valid passport or papers, could be vaccinated soon.

“I know they are all scared, like I was. But my experience was good. I’m thankful that I’ve got this vaccine even though I had to go through a lot of stress. I think more people will show up once word gets out that it is safe to come forward and get the vaccine,” he said.

Sabah aims to achieve herd immunity by inoculating some 2.9 million people by year end. It is unclear whether this figure includes the undocumented migrant population.

Both Masidi and state Health director Dr Rose Nani Mudin have said that they are in the midst of collecting numbers for the undocumented population who show up for vaccinations.

“We also need them for planning and management purposes for all PPVs. We want to make sure we continuously make the necessary adjustments to enable the PPVs to function and serve better,” said Masidi.

*Names have been changed at the request of the interviewees.

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