The COVID-19 pandemic spiked in Malaysia in March 2020; current statistics from the Ministry of Health show that the cumulative number of cases of COVID-19 in the country is approximately 8,000, with 116 fatalities. Though the implementation of the Movement Control Order (MCO) has succeeded in controlling the spread of the disease within the country, the pandemic has brought about an influx of illegal foreign workers and immigrants, representing a significant challenge for Malaysia.
Two scenarios have led the Malaysian government to focus on border security enforcement amid the pandemic. First, rapid socioeconomic development has made Malaysia a major focus for foreign workers. With rising labor needs in various sectors such as manufacturing, construction, and agriculture, the influx of illegal foreign workers has increased. However, due to their limited access to healthcare and sanitation systems, the possibility of these workers being infected with the new coronavirus now threatens the livelihood of the local population.
Second, Malaysia is a preferred destination for Rohingya immigrants; the country is attractive location for the persecuted community from Myanmar as it is a Muslim-majority nation and has been a major recipient of Rohingyas for humanitarian reasons. It was estimated that 2,000 Rohingya individuals were screened for COVID-19 in Malaysia after participating in the mosque gathering in February 2020. The presence of this cluster has been more visible during the pandemic and MCO period, with a number of boats carrying Rohingyas arriving at Malaysian shores. As a result, Malaysia has faced challenges in drawing a clear line between humanitarian assistance and national security.
Malaysia has become a focal point for illegal entry, particularly during the pandemic because of its ability to control the disease and effective healthcare system. These migrants are willing to risk their lives for a higher quality of life in Malaysia. However, the increase of illegal immigrants and foreign workers during this time may pose a threat to the country’s socioeconomic stability and health and human security. This issue has caused the government to analyze the consequences of immigration and emergency response mechanisms to ensure that the population is protected from COVID-19 brought about by migrants.
In April 2020, the government formed the National Task Force (NTF) to manage illegal entry to Malaysia. The Malaysian Armed Forces (MAF) was given the mandate to coordinate an integrated operation with other security enforcement agencies within the NTF. The main elements that drive this task force are the MAF, the Royal Malaysian Police (RMP), and the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA). Aside from the main three main security enforcement agencies, close cooperation and strong collaboration with other government agencies, such as the Malaysian Immigration Department, Royal Malaysian Customs, the Civil Defense Agency, the Ministry of Health, and the Malaysian Border Security Agency, have been implemented.
The NTF was formed as an integrated operation to carry out tasks assigned by the government. It is responsible for developing a plan by gathering all the information, coordinating security measures, and monitoring the illegal encroachment of immigrants and undocumented foreign workers at all entrances and border areas of the country, both by land and sea. The operation identified corridors in the West Coast of Peninsular Malaysia, the East Coast of Sabah, and along the inland border of Sarawak. With the involvement and cooperation of the personnel and assets of all security enforcement agencies, the country’s borders (on land and at sea) have been tightened and prevented both illegal entry and the spread of COVID-19 in Malaysia.
Managing and executing remedial actions immediately and effectively during the COVID-19 pandemic is crucial. With the newly established task force, it is clear that Malaysia seeks to implement new mechanisms to deal with illegal border crossings as part of its disease control response. Previously, the task of preventing illegal immigrants and foreign workers had been carried out by security enforcement agencies with their own assets, personnel, and capabilities. But the NTF is characterized by all security agencies operating as part of a well-coordinated force. Sharing information and domain awareness is a step in the right direction in addressing pandemic border security in Malaysia.
Tharishini Krishnan is a senior lecturer at the Department of Strategic Studies at the National Defence University of Malaysia and a Centre of Defense and International Security Studies research fellow.