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Jakarta Post

ASEAN must not neglect migrant workers, refugees in COVID-19 response: Activists

  • Dian Septiari
    Dian Septiari

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Wed, April 15, 2020   /   08:17 pm
ASEAN must not neglect migrant workers, refugees in COVID-19 response: Activists Indonesian construction workers from East Java affected by Malaysia's movement restrictions gather in their rented house in Kuala Lumpur on March 27. (Antara/Agus Setiawan)

Having held a special meeting on Tuesday to discuss steps that could be taken at the regional level to overcome the COVID-19 pandemic, ASEAN leaders are now facing pressure not to neglect migrant workers and refugees after the two vulnerable groups were not mentioned at all in the meeting’s main outcome document.

The meeting, held online and chaired by Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, resulted in a joint declaration that included the widely applauded plan to establish a regional COVID-19 response fund to deal with the scarcity of medical supplies caused by the pandemic.

However, labor rights advocacy group Migrant Care criticized the declaration for not tackling the issue of human mobility, especially in regard to migration and refugees. 

“From a careful reading of this declaration, the substance is still within the framework of normative ASEAN cooperation, emphasizing more the medical governance approach,” Migrant Care’s Wahyu Susilo said on Tuesday.

While the approach was certainly important and useful, ASEAN should also find a way to help migrants and refugees, which has become an even more pressing matter during the pandemic, he said.

Read also: Leaders support establishment of ASEAN COVID-19 response fund

“They are part of a group that is vulnerable to COVID-19. It is unfortunate that ASEAN has neglected this,” he added.

In the declaration, leaders expressed an intention to “prioritize the well-being of peoples in ASEAN’s collective fight against COVID-19” and to “provide appropriate assistance and support to the nationals of ASEAN member states affected by the pandemic in each other’s country or in third countries.”

As one of the biggest migrant-sending countries in the region, Indonesia in particular raised the issue at Tuesday’s meeting, with President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo acknowledging the roles migrant workers played in their host countries’ economies.

“The President emphasized that migrant workers have in fact contributed to the economies of ASEAN member countries,” Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi said after the meeting on Tuesday.

Singapore and Malaysia, among the wealthiest countries in the region, depend on millions of migrant workers to fill low-wage jobs in the agriculture, construction, domestic help and restaurant sectors.

In Singapore, migrant workers are the most vulnerable members of the community, with around a third of the city-state’s 2,918 cases having been linked to clusters at migrant worker dormitories, where workers from Bangladesh, Indonesia, Myanmar, Nepal and elsewhere often sleep 10 to 20 to a room.

Read also: Singapore migrant workers live in fear as virus hits dorms

In Malaysia, migrants make up around 30 percent of the Malaysian workforce, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO).

According to the Indonesian Foreign Ministry, there are 1.1 million documented Indonesian workers in Malaysia, with the number of undocumented workers estimated to be double.

These workers have been greatly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, especially following Malaysia’s decision to enforce a movement control order (MCO) policy, which began on March 18 and has been extended until April 28.

“Many Indonesian workers are day laborers, such as construction workers, and are affected by not being able to work because of the MCO, which is basically a semi lockdown,” Retno said in a livestream discussion on Wednesday.

Indonesian missions in Malaysia have distributed nearly 70,000 food packages to the most vulnerable Indonesian workers, with priority given to day laborers, the elderly and the disabled.

Retno said each ASEAN country had adopted a different approach to contain the pandemic, but that they must not lose sight of the commitment to assisting and protecting their vulnerable citizens in other ASEAN countries.

“Nearly 7 million workers migrate within the ASEAN region. I believe they are at the heart of our community building process,” Retno said in an op-ed published by The Jakarta Post on Tuesday. “With more than 1 million Indonesians working in Singapore and Malaysia, I have been in close contact with my counterparts to ensure the protection of our migrant workers in their respective countries.”

Wahyu said ASEAN must acknowledge the vulnerability of migrant workers as well as Rohingya refugees, who live in appalling conditions near the Myanmar-Bangladesh border.

“We urge ASEAN to develop and implement a health protocol for the protection of migrant workers and refugees in the region to ensure they are also an integral part of the efforts to prevent COVID-19 transmission,” he said. “This protocol requires a human rights-based, gender-sensitive and non-discriminatory approach.”