Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has been providing healthcare to stateless Rohingya and other refugee communities in the Malaysian state of Penang since 2015.
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Malaysia is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, and asylum seekers and refugees are criminalised 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 behaviour and can cause patients to abscond from hospital, interrupting treatment.
In 2018, we ran 45 mobile clinics, which together performed a total of 3,500 medical consultations. Our teams also conducted health education sessions in learning centres 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 healthcare clinic in a Penang neighbourhood where many undocumented migrants and refugees reside. By the end of December, the clinic had already carried out 1,800 consultations and made 113 referrals. In addition, 780 patients received mental health education, psychosocial support and/or counselling.
We also extended our provision of healthcare 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 healthcare, primarily due to the language barriers faced by survivors of more than 10 different nationalities, in 2018 we started providing psychosocial and counselling 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 centre in Kedah, northwest of Penang. In December, we jointly organised a symposium on improving access to healthcare 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 per cent 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.