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28 May 2021

Meaning of home to migrants/ marginalized groups in the time of the pandemic

Written by Jennifer Han


This article sheds light on the need for adequate housing and protection for migrant and refugee populations in Malaysia during the COVID-19 pandemic. Due to the government’s restrictions, these communities face even more precarious situations – being unable to access crucial transportation or food services. The Government’s restrictions, although necessary for public health measures, must also ensure that marginalized groups have access to COVID-19 tests and proper medical care without the fear of repercussion for their stateless or migrant status. The Human Rights Watch and the UNHCR continues to advocate for the rights of these vulnerable populations.


As a means to curb the spread of COVID-19, the Malaysian government implemented a Movement Control Order (MCO) in March 2020. The MCO prevented travel of more than ten kilometers from one’s residence and ordered businesses not deemed essential to close, leading to the termination of many jobs.


MCO impacts to low-income groups

These harsh, albeit necessary orders have had disproportionately negative effects on the most vulnerable populations. According to IIAS Asia, most jobs held by the bottom 40% require physical presence and cannot be conducted from home. Food stalls and pop-up morning markets are also key components within the neighborhoods of poorer populations to purchase food and other necessities at lower prices than in the supermarkets.

Among individuals from urban low-income populations, many have lost their jobs, and those who are still employed are often dependent on public transportation which has undergone restrictions to curb the spread of the virus. Many live in physically compact communities, small apartments, and in other spaces where it may not be safe to remain indoors.


MCO impacts to migrants and refugees

For marginalized populations such as migrants, stateless people, and refugees, the effects of the pandemic and forcing individuals to “stay at home” is more complex. Many non-citizens in Malaysia are forced to pay higher rates for health care compared to citizens, which makes access to healthcare an insurmountable barrier for low income migrant communities. Although the Ministry of Health announced in March 2020 that COVID-19 tests would be free for foreigners and Malaysians, many foreigners refrain from being tested out of fear of detainment or arrest. Nonetheless, the government is responsible in providing this protection and the Human Rights Watch has encouraged governments to abolish the COVID-19 testing fee, suspend arrests, and announce that ‘all those who need medical care can seek it without fear of arrest or deportation’.

In Malaysia, the town of Sabah which has a large population of migrants, stateless people, and refugees reported high levels of COVID-19 cases. The potential risk of serious outbreak is compounded due to inadequate sanitation, lack of running water, and small crowded houses within the communities.


Policy reflections

Adequate housing was recognized as part of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and in the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. When thinking about the meaning of “home”, it is difficult to separate its significance from “housing”. The right to adequate housing is broadly seen as the right to live somewhere in security, peace and dignity. Some of the criteria includes security of tenure, meaning occupants have a degree of legal protection from forced evictions, harassment and other threats. Adequate housing also includes the availability of services such as safe drinking water, adequate sanitation, energy for cooking, heating, lighting, food storage and refuse disposal. In many cases for migrant and low-income populations, these criteria are unmet.

This calls into the question of the meaning of “home”. When housing fails to offer a sense of security, peace and dignity, during a global pandemic, what does it do to the meaning of “home” for vulnerable populations?

According to the literature, the significance of home is marked by variations in the individual’s discourses created through daily life experiences. Home is not simply a location, but a space for social and personal experiences where belonging, identity, and power relations are connected. Any sense of belonging, desire and intimacy has been replaced with feelings of fear, violence, and further alienation. In this case, home is associated with negative connotations such as obligations, coercion, imprisonment, and repression. As vulnerable populations adopt to the conditions of the pandemic, feelings towards Malaysia as a home is associated with the fears, threats, and changes from these public spaces. The space revealed to offer no protection from the life-threatening virus, and the policies put in place by the government further prevented migrants from protection through the denial of adequate healthcare, spaces, or policy supports.

Malaysia’s 4 million undocumented migrant workers and refugees have limited access to health or social welfare services and the pandemic has highlighted dangers with these gaps, especially to these vulnerable communities. Many migrants in Malaysia (including both legal and undocumented workers) are from Indonesia, Nepal, Bangladesh and India. In February 2020, data from the UNHCR showed 154,000 refugees from Myanmar.


Disparate impacts call for a re-imagining of social protection for migrant groups

While for many, the COVID-19 pandemic has transformed the meaning of “home” into a digital work from home (WFH) setting or fostered a deeper bond among families forced to spend more time together, however, the picture is different for most vulnerable populations. For many including the urban poor, migrant workers, stateless and refugees, “home” may have lost its ability to make these individuals feel any sense of belonging, safety, or security.

This disparity and change in the meaning of home due to the pandemic brings a sharper focus into the growing gap between affluent neighborhoods and poorer surrounding neighborhoods struggling to ensure basic sanitation due to the inadequate infrastructure. Access to basic social necessities such as adequate housing, water, and sanitation must be universal to all humans regardless of the status of a settlement. The absence of these human rights contributes to a precarious sense of home for vulnerable populations and are certainly further exacerbated by the effects of COVID-19 restrictions.


Sources: Iias; Hrw; Asiafoundation; Straitstimes; Voanews; Aljazeera; Hindustantimes; Springer; Ohchr

Written by Jennifer Han