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Migrant workers fear being excluded from COVID-19 vaccination program

Migrant workers work in a fishery in Gunsan, North Jeolla Province, Feb. 2. / Korea Times file
Migrant workers work in a fishery in Gunsan, North Jeolla Province, Feb. 2. / Korea Times file

By Lee Hyo-jin

Migrant workers here are concerned that they might be excluded from the nationwide COVID-19 vaccination program or pushed back on the priority list, saying that the government's coronavirus-related measures so far have not been equally applied to them.

Prior to the vaccine rollout, the government said that foreign nationals who have stayed in the country for over three months, including undocumented migrants, will be provided with the vaccine under the same order and procedures applied to Korean nationals.

But limited information on vaccination schedules have left migrant workers wondering when their turn will come. Many of these workers are concerned that they might be lose their eligibility at the last minute, considering the government's inconsistent coronavirus-related policies for migrants.

"As we haven't been told anything from the authorities yet, many workers are quite confused and concerned when they will actually be able to get vaccinated," said Shekh al Mamun, a senior member of the migrant workers union under the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions.

The government should give specific details and actively discuss the vaccination plan with migrants' groups in order to ease their concerns, he said.

According to him, foreign workers have already experienced discrimination and exclusion from state COVID-19 support measures such as the mask distribution and disaster relief funding programs.

The public mask distribution plan, which was implemented while the country was struggling with a shortage of face masks in March last year, limited purchases to subscribers to the national health insurance program, leaving thousands of migrant workers on the sidelines.

Many foreign workers were excluded from disaster relief funds offered by the central and local governments as beneficiaries were limited to permanent residents, expatriates with registration cards and marriage migrants.

Migrants and local activists protest in front of Cheong Wa Dae, central Seoul, urging the government to provide disaster relief funds equitably to foreign residents, May 7, 2020. Yonhap
Migrants and local activists protest in front of Cheong Wa Dae, central Seoul, urging the government to provide disaster relief funds equitably to foreign residents, May 7, 2020. Yonhap

"Related governmental bodies should cooperate to ensure that all foreign members of society, regardless of their legal status, get vaccinated," Shehk said.

Kim Dal-sung, head of Pocheon migrant workers' center in Gyeonggi Province, echoed the sentiment saying that foreign workers should not be pushed back as a vaccination priority, as they work and live in facilities that are more vulnerable to virus transmission.

"The recent infection clusters involving migrant workers in Dongducheon and Namyangju in the province show how prone they are to virus risks," Kim said.

Another concern among the migrant workers' group is how the health authorities will be able to provide vaccines to some 400,000 undocumented foreigners.

"As it will be difficult to contact each undocumented foreign national to inform them of their vaccination date, each local government will have to notify them to visit public health centers for inoculation," a Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency official told The Korea Times.

But even if vaccines are provided, it is expected that many undocumented immigrants will be reluctant to come forward for inoculation out of fear that they will be detained and deported.

"In order to encourage them to get vaccinated, the health authorities should make it clear that their immigration status will not be checked, and build trust with them through a step-by-step process," Shekh said.

Kim said that providing the vaccine to undocumented foreigners is necessary not only from a humanitarian perspective, but also because it is a crucial part in creating a safe environment.

"Without vaccinating all migrant workers, COVID-19 infections can occur any time in industrial complexes, and on farms and fisheries, which will obviously threaten the safety of local residents as well," he said.


이효진 lhj@koreatimes.co.kr


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