LAST_UPDATESun, 22 Jul 2018 10am

Illegal Immigrants: Are They A Threat To Our Health?

File Pic: freemalaysiatoday.comFile Pic: freemalaysiatoday.comAmongst our increasingly diverse society, there live those with undocumented identities, stories that are left untold and realities that have been misrepresented. This is the truth behind the journey of an illegal immigrant. Making a living far away from their homelands, taking the risk to make ends meet and doing what it takes to survive.

A common sight everywhere in our country, immigrants from Indonesia, Bangladesh, Philippines, Myanmar, Nepal, and Vietnam have been flocking the cities and streets, working at restaurants, construction sites, even as security guards, gardeners and maids, as a result of the continuous influx of immigrants, both legal and illegal.

File Pic: Pic: this month, Malaysian Minister of Human Resources Datuk Seri Richard Riot Jaem claimed that there are 4.5 million illegal immigrants out of the total 6.7 million foreign workers in Malaysia. Aside to the possible safety threats, this seems to be causing a lot of discomfort amongst Malaysians as illegal immigrants appear to be a contributing factor to the resurgence of certain infectious diseases in our country, previously thought to have been under control.

The Outbreak That Has Crossed Our Border

In a local report, Health Deputy Minister Datuk Seri Dr Hilmi Yahaya said the influx could be a factor contributing to a major spike in tuberculosis (TB) infection among locals in the country. TB is identified as one of the six infectious diseases that pose a threat to the population after HIV. It is transmitted from person to person via droplets from the throat to the lungs through air whether coughing, sneezing, spitting or even speaking.

The latest statistics show that TB is one of the latest outbreaks in our country that is fast-rising, with a death rate even higher than dengue. There were approximately 20,000 cases of TB reported among the locals with over 1,000 fatalities yearly.

Another alarming fact is that a large number of foreign workers who were brought in legally have failed medical screening for TB. Health authorities also claimed that most medical certificates issued in their country of origin were false and unreliable.

Out of 1.27 million foreign workers screened, 3.0 to 3.5 percent failed the second screening test for TB and other diseases. Citing Chief Executive Officer, Mohd Hatar Ismail from the Foreign Workers Medical Examination Monitoring Agency (Fomema), the latest statistics in 2013, showed that a total of 16,751 foreign workers suffer from TB, and these exclude illegal immigrants. Leaves room for us to ponder on how many others out there actually carry the disease and are putting the public at high risk of being infected?

Are We Taking The Right Healthcare Measures To Control The Outbreak Of Diseases?

For a closer look at Malaysia’s health care screenings for foreign workers and to seek an explanation on the sudden increase in TB cases in our country, possibly brought in by illegal immigrants in Malaysia, we caught up with Prof Datuk Dr Mohd Amin Jaludin, Vice Chancellor of University Malaya.File Pic: Pic:

He told us, “TB is indeed one of the most common diseases detected from foreign workers. However, Malaysia has managed to control the spread of the disease really well. TB vaccination shots are given to Malaysian since infants, and then another round for children at the age of 12.”

The Ministry of Health has enforced the Hospitalisation and Surgical Scheme for Foreign Workers in 2011, where a mandatory medical coverage for all foreign workers with a premium of RM120 and a total coverage of RM10, 000. Until now, up to RM20 billion has been subsidised by the government for the health care of foreign workers. Unfortunately, for illegal immigrants, this treatment has not been given due to the irresponsible conduct of some agents and middlemen, causing a major TB outbreak in our country.

“Illegal immigrants are no doubt the contributing factor to the outbreak of TB in Malaysia, especially when they surpass the health screenings and enter the country without vaccination. According to section 8 Immigration Act 1959/63, anyone who refuses to do a medical checkup are not allowed to cross the Malaysian border."

“However, it is not fair to blame the illegal immigrants. Sometimes, irresponsible agents and middlemen bend the rules and skip the processes, bringing foreign workers illegally into the country, not bearing the consequences of the outbreak of diseases, especially TB,” he added.

Will Changes In The Law Lead To Better Monitoring?

To tackle the issue of illegal immigrants and the diseases that they bring to our country, some amendments will be made to the Fees Act (Medical) 1951 for Foreigners. Health Minister Datuk Seri Dr S. Subramaniam recently made an announcement that medical cost of foreign workers will be increased by 30% next year, and by 2017, there will be no subsidy and they will have to pay the full cost of medical treatments at government hospitals and clinics.

"In 2016, it will be increased by another 30% and subsequently be raised by 40% in 2017," he said when raised in the Budget 2015 debate for the ministry at the Dewan Rakyat.

File pic: malaysiakiniFile pic: malaysiakiniIn our interview with Aegile Fernandez, director of Tenaganita, an NGO with one of its focuses to protect migrants and refugee rights, she commented on the government’ policies saying that, “It is unfair for them (foreign workers) to pay more for medical treatments. If they are helping towards the development of our country, shouldn’t they enjoy the same medical benefits as the locals?

“As for the illegal immigrants, we should stop judging them. And if they are here with no proper documents, let them register properly. Proper enforcements must be made by the government instead of having them punished and denying the rights for them to engage in proper employment to support themselves and their families, without any protection under the law,” she added.

Even with policies in place, the access to medical treatment for illegal immigrants are not easy. Angeline Loh, who champions human rights, discussed in her column, “Health screening measures imposed by the government are inadequate to stem the spread of infectious diseases carried by foreigners illegally entering Malaysia. Government policy and immigration regulations which render undocumented migrants ‘illegal’ pose barriers to accessing proper medical treatment.

“The first obstacle to medical attention is the foreigners’ charge i.e. the high medical fees imposed on foreign patients across the board without any consideration of economic means. Second, the threat of arrest and detention in an immigration detention camp, police lock-up or prison, if they fail to meet demands by the hospital for payment.

“Without the means to pay for necessary medical treatment, many choose to stay away from government hospitals, where even the 50 percent discount on foreigners’ fees for confirmed refugees doesn’t lighten the financial burden on their meagre resources,” she said.

Clearing The Air

It cannot be ruled out that the recent outbreak of diseases were caused by the unrestrained amount of illegal immigrants in our country. But just like any other issue, there is always two sides to the coin.

The debate about illegal immigrants will continue to arise and who knows what diseases we will be exposed to next? However, in view of the increasing number of TB cases and potentially other diseases in the country, more public awareness is needed and people should be informed via social media, TV and radio to shield themselves from such diseases.

Pointing fingers will also not do any good in curbing the spread of diseases if our country’s migration policies and laws continue to deny illegal immigrants with easy access to health care services. Now that medical subsidies will be abrogated for foreign workers, the government should look into allocating funds to do in depth research on treatment of deadly diseases, as good preparation for our future.

To you reading this, before being too quick to pass judgements on illegal immigrants, please take a step back and recognise them as human beings too who are only here in desperation to better their lives.