KUALA LUMPUR: Walk-ins for those facing barriers to vaccines, such as irregular migrants and refugees, is set to begin on Aug 1 in Kuala Lumpur and Selangor, but whether it succeeds in reaching its target is still a question mark.

Vaccinating the millions of irregular migrants in Malaysia remains part of the country's plan to gain control of COVID-19 within its borders. The ongoing pandemic has impacted the country's economy, overburdened the healthcare system and virtually made prisoners of its residents for months.

Walk-ins are a successful way to increase vaccination rates, as seen from the "Jab first, register later" initiative in Kapit, Sarawak in June and the United States' walk-in vaccinations in pharmacies in May. To date, Malaysia has one of the fastest vaccination rates in the world with 1.35 doses administered per 100 people.

Activists and community leaders have lauded the walk-in programme and expect it to mainly benefit migrants who are in the country legally with valid work permits but could not register for a vaccine under MySejahtera for some reason or other.

Filipino community leader Liezl (not her real name) is relieved to know walk-ins would begin soon in Kuala Lumpur and Selangor as many members of her community have not been able to get their vaccine due to passport issues.

"It's good especially for those who have passports that have already expired and still waiting (to renew their passports) since last year, ever since the pandemic began," she said, adding it would also help some of her stateless members.

But the same cannot be said for irregular migrants who include the undocumented, those who were documented but became undocumented as well as migrants who work under someone else's work permit.

Public health experts and civil society officials are concerned that the walk-in programme may not work as well for them, saying most migrants are leery of stepping foot into a vaccination centre as they still fear arrest and detention despite assurances of safe passage.

On Sunday, coordinating minister for the National COVID-19 Immunisation Programme (PICK) Khairy Jamaluddin Abu Bakar announced that the guidelines to administer vaccines for migrants and refugees have been approved.

He added most of the vaccinations would be handled by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to reassure the migrants.

Immigration Department director-general Datuk Khairul Dzaimee Daud promised a safe passage for them, telling Bernama via WhatsApp that "immigration will not interfere in (the) vaccination programme for migrants nor station its officials near the COVID-19 vaccination sites".

MERCY Malaysia president Datuk Dr Ahmad Faizal Perdaus said walk-in vaccinations would be an ideal solution for irregular migrants and refugees as long as the groups, agencies and people responsible for allowing them into the PPV (vaccination centre) and administering the vaccine adhere to the assurance given by the Immigration Department director-general.

However, he said governmental policy did not always translate well to the people on the ground, who may end up preventing some migrants and refugees from walking in to get their vaccine.

"The proof will be in the pudding. And it will be in the eating of the pudding. Unfortunately, until it actually happens, we have no way of verifying (it is safe for migrants)," he said.

While walk-in vaccinations can do wonders to increase vaccination rates, experts and activists say the government should also start reaching out to irregular migrants and refugees through other methods.

Currently, the government's outreach programmes for the bedridden, the disabled and those living in rural areas include door-to-door and drive-through vaccinations, as well as the use of community centres as PPV and mobile vaccination sites. Currently, these initiatives only serve Malaysians.

Dr Ahmad Faizal said the government should not wait to include irregular migrants and refugees in the outreach programmes scheduled for Phase 4 of PICK.

"I don't think we should wait until that long. Because migrants are a reservoir of the virus. To a lesser extent, the refugee community," he said.

Non-Malaysians are overrepresented in total infections. For instance, about 20 percent of infections recorded so far in July comprised non-citizens despite them being around 10 percent of the population overall.

There were about 1.7 million foreign workers in Malaysia in 2020, according to the Ministry of Human Resources. The International Organisation for Migration estimated that there was an additional two to four million irregular migrants in 2018. As of June this year, there were more than 179,000 refugees in Malaysia, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).

Founder and director of Our Journey Sumitha Shaanthinni Kishna said options other than walk-in vaccinations are also needed as many migrant workers are unlikely to avail of the initiative. Her group plans to provide a mobile vaccination site for migrants as soon as the COVID-19 Immunisation Task Force (CITF) approves it.

"(They won't go into) government premises. For undocumented migrants, past experience has shown that it is very difficult (for them) to walk into government premises. For example, hospitals. The fear is there still (of being reported to Immigration)," she said.

There are early signs that the walk-in programme may yet succeed, however.

While many irregular migrants and refugees may be leery of walk-in vaccinations, some are willing to risk it if it means getting the vaccine sooner rather than later.

An undocumented migrant from Indonesia, who asked to be identified only as Surya, said his painless experience with the AstraZeneca opt-in programme made him encourage others to get their shot as soon as possible.

"I told them they should go get the shot for themselves. If we get the vaccine, we won't be so afraid. Yes, life and death are up to God but we must make the effort to be safe," he said.