Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has been providing health care to stateless Rohingya and other refugee communities in the Malaysian state of Penang since 2015.
Malaysia is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, and asylum seekers and refugees are criminalized by domestic law. The constant threat of arrest and detention is a major source of stress for an already vulnerable population; it discourages health-seeking behavior and can cause patients to abscond from hospital, interrupting treatment.
In 2018, we ran 45 mobile clinics, which together performed a total of 3,501 medical consultations. Our teams also conducted health education sessions in learning cent for refugee children, raising awareness about health issues such as dengue and general personal hygiene, and distributing hygiene kits.
In October we inaugurated a fixed primary health care clinic in a Penang neighborhood where many undocumented migrants and refugees reside. By the end of December, the clinic had already carried out 1,802 consultations and made 113 referrals. In addition, 777 patients received mental health education, psychosocial support, and counseling.
We also extended our provision of health care to at-risk groups such as survivors of human trafficking. Our teams work in five of the government protection shelters for survivors of trafficking in Kuala Lumpur, Negeri Sembilan, and Johor Bahru. We run mobile clinics, make referrals to government health services, and donate medicines. Having identified a particular gap in mental health care, primarily due to the language barriers faced by survivors of more than 10 different nationalities, in 2018 we started providing psychosocial and counseling services to survivors of trafficking in their native languages.
In collaboration with MERCY Malaysia, we conduct regular mobile clinics and carry out water and sanitation improvements in Belantik detention center in Kedah, northwest of Penang. In December, we jointly organized a symposium on improving access to health care for refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia. The symposium’s recommendations were presented to the government and a steering committee will be set up by the Ministry of Health to look into how they can be implemented.
We also continued to address the lack of protection caused by barriers to asylum claims. The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, continues to restrict asylum seekers from Myanmar, including Rohingya, from making direct claims. This applies to approximately 87 percent of asylum seekers in Malaysia, and prevents them from receiving the documentation they need to reduce the risk of arrest and allow limited access to essential services. For many stateless Rohingya, UNHCR-issued papers will be the only identity documents they possess. A limited number of NGOs can refer asylum claims to the refugee agency based on a set of additional vulnerability criteria; in 2018 we made 612 such referrals.