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Seoul to plug undocumented migrants loophole in COVID-19 efforts

(Yonhap)
(Yonhap)
Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun on Wednesday directed swift action on undocumented migrants amid concerns that their crowded and substandard living conditions, lack of access to masks and testing could create new clusters of COVID-19 infections, as seen in Singapore.

An estimated 380,000 migrants illegally residing in the country should be able to get masks and receive medical treatment without worrying about their status or about being deported, Chung said at the meeting on the government’s response to the pandemic.

“Due to their unstable status, there is a high chance that they won’t seek testing even though they have suspected (COVID-19) symptoms and this is a blind spot that is possibly leading to community transmission,” he said.

The focus should be on expanding access to health care for unregistered migrants to detect those possibly infected with the virus early, Chung said, adding measures should be designed from a “quarantine” perspective rather than one centered on “immigration control.”

“If we label them illegal immigrants and crack down on them, they will go into hiding more deeply, which could create a blind spot,” he said.

There have been no infections reported among unregistered migrants to date, Vice Health and Welfare Minister Kim Gang-lip said at a briefing Wednesday.

As Korea’s infection rate stabilizes with around 10 new cases per day, the government is turning its attention to those who might have been sidelined in its response to the COVID-19 outbreak, including unregistered migrants and the homeless population.

Relevant measures to better protect the socially marginalized from the coronavirus are to be released this week.

Currently, testing for COVID-19 is available for everyone, including unregistered migrants, and they are charged the same fees as citizens for testing and treatment. They don’t have to reveal their identity when requiring testing.

Since late January, the government also exempted medical facilities from their duty to inform the immigration office when they treat undocumented migrants.

The problem, though, is that many undocumented migrants are not aware of this, according to activists.

“Unregistered migrants still don’t know they can go to clinics to get tested for the coronavirus and receive treatment. They still think they will be deported if they seek testing or go to hospitals,” said Kim Yong-chul, consulting director at the Sungseo Industrial Complex Trade Union, based in Daegu, stressing the need for better advertising of the policy in migrants’ languages.

Kim also pointed out that the cramped, poor living conditions that many migrants have to endure -- where many share a single room to save money on rent -- could lead to new clusters of infections at any moment.

Singapore, which was once touted as an early success in containing the COVID-19, is seeing a second wave of infections mostly driven by migrant workers living in overcrowded dormitories.

A lack of protective equipment also distresses migrant workers.

“It is really difficult for unregistered migrants to get masks, with many of them using one repeatedly after washing,” said Udaya Rai, a Nepalese who has been in Korea for 20 years and heads Korea’s first labor union for foreign workers, the Migrants Trade Union.

A shortage of masks at the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak led to the exclusion of foreigners from the current mask rationing system, except for those subscribing to the country’s national health insurance program. That left out almost half of the foreign population here.

Now, all foreigners can buy masks as long as they have alien registration cards. This, however, still sidelines migrants staying here illegally.

“They also should be able to buy a mask easily just with their passport, even though they don’t have an alien card,” Rai said.

By Ock Hyun-ju (laeticia.ock@heraldcorp.com)
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