The Islamic Medical Association of Malaysia’s Response and Relief Team (IMARET) started off from a group of young doctors who felt the need to do more than just helping people within the confines of a hospital. The team’s focus is on disaster relief and providing medical services to marginalized communities which lack access to healthcare. Despite these doctors’ tight schedules and commitments, they strive to meet the healthcare needs of the less fortunate by volunteering at refugee camps and orang asli settlements.

Facts and figures of the refugee situation in Malaysia:
  • As of late March 2018, there are 155,880 refugees and asylum-seekers registered with UNHCR in Malaysia. 
  • Some 135,740 are from Myanmar, comprising 69,880 Rohingyas, 33,020 Chins, 9,820 Myanmar Muslims, 4,020 Rakhines and Arakanese, as well as other ethnicities from Myanmar.
  • There are 20,130 refugees and asylum-seekers from other countries, including some 5,690 Pakistanis, 2,720 Yemenis, 2,550 Syrians, 2,520 Somalis, 1,940 Sri Lankans, 1,470 Iraqis, 1,380 Afghans, 750 Palestinians, in addition to those from other countries.
  • 66% of refugees and asylum-seekers are men, while 34% are women.
  • There are 41,000 children below the age of 18. 
Dr Munawwar expresses that if there are any medical practitioners who wants to join IMARET, please contact them as they intend to expand their team in other parts of Malaysia.
Dr Munawwar expresses that if there are any medical practitioners who wants to join IMARET, please contact them as they intend to expand their team in other parts of Malaysia.

Questions

1. Could you share with us a brief history of IMARET?

I am the chief coordinator of IMARET and we are a team established under the Islamic Medical Association of Malaysia. We have only one permanent staff and the rest – the management and exco are all doctors and volunteers. There are about 900 active volunteers and 300 of them are IMAM members.

It started back in 2013 during the Kuantan flood. At that time, even though Kemaman was also affected, help was being channelled mainly to Kuantan. A few friends and I decided to lead the assistance activities in Kemaman. We were not known as IMARET yet back then, but just a group of healthcare professionals (HCPs) trying to help. The following year, we were more prepared and prior to the occurrence of the annual East Coast flood, we did fund raising activities and collected items that flood victims might need. Our team started growing and we were officially formed on 19 December 2014, just 5 days before the worst flood in Malaysian history to date.

2. From disaster relief to refugee heroes. What is the current refugee situation in Malaysia?

As time goes by, we realized that there are others who need medical assistance besides victims of disasters, and they are often the marginalized communities.

We have the orang asli who are Malaysian citizens with rights to basic healthcare at government clinics and hospitals. But they face logistic issues, where the nearest access to something as simple as paracetamol is about 2 hours away.

And then we have the refugees. For example, the Rohingyans who make up the highest number of refugees in the country. They live mainly in urban areas so their issues are not tied to logistics, but mainly due to financial difficulties. Their medical fees are charged at a foreigner’s rate and even with 50% discounts for UNHCR card holders, they need to pay upfront and claim later. Hospital admission at a government hospital can come up to RM 1,000 and registration fee at government clinics is RM 32. This is not inclusive of consultations, medications and investigations, which could cost up to RM 300 in total. For them, the money they have is too valuable to be used for just one person’s medication and they would rather use it to buy food which could feed the whole family. Unlike the orang asli, refugees lack the rights of citizen in Malaysia, so they do not have access to basic rights such as education and healthcare.

And that’s where medical NGOs like us come in. We provide medical services to the marginalized communities. It is no more about passion or hobby, it is now a responsibility.

Dr Ahmad Munawwar Helmi and Dr Azlin (IMARET Exco) providing medical check-up for Syrian refugees at the border of Lebanon-Syria during the Lebanon Mission in 2016. Photo credit: Dr Ahmad Munawwar
Dr Ahmad Munawwar Helmi and Dr Azlin (IMARET Exco) providing medical check-up for Syrian refugees at the border of Lebanon-Syria during the Lebanon Mission in 2016. Photo credit: Dr Ahmad Munawwar

IMARET volunteers at the orang asli settlement in Pos Sinderut, Pahang in 2015. Photo credit: Dr Ahmad Munawwar
IMARET volunteers at the orang asli settlement in Pos Sinderut, Pahang in 2015. Photo credit: Dr Ahmad Munawwar

3. Could you give us a brief outline on the services and activities provided by IMARET?

In Klang Valley, we have regular free clinics for Rohingyan refugees that run once every 2 weeks, rotating between Selayang, Ampang and Seri Kembangan. We also have IMARET chapters established in Kelantan and Penang, where they conduct monthly free clinics for the refugees in these states.

Since October 2017, we have deployed at least 50 doctors to Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh to provide medical relief there. We set up a clinic with our local partner and treated more than 40,000 patients. We provide both outpatient and emergency services. We are also part of the forward medical team for the Malaysian Field Hospital (MFH) there. For cases that cannot be managed in the clinic, we will refer patients to MFH or other international field hospitals in Cox’s Bazar.

Although our name stands for Islamic Medical Association of Malaysia’s Response and Relief Team, our volunteers can be anyone regardless of race and religion, and they can also from a nonmedical background. There is no limit, anyone can join us as we want to inspire the spirit of volunteerism.

4. What is the future outlook for IMARET?

Our target will still be on helping the marginalized communities because we want to stay focused. It is better to put more effort on one thing rather than doing many things at once at the expense of quality. We are increasing more services for refugees. Usually, medical outreach programmes are done as a one-time thing and after managing them as outpatients, we will refer them to tertiary care. But now we are starting to do it on a regular basis and refugees have started coming to our clinics for monthly follow-ups too. We not only do medical check-ups, but we now also manage chronic diseases such as diabetes and hypertension.

These people depend on us and need our help so we need to equip ourselves with the capability of providing that type of care. We need a mobile lab for medical investigations and other services. Refugee communities now need psychosocial support and we have formed a mental health team to address the issue. If we do not provide the required services, we collaborate with other partners who do. There are 150,000 refugees who are registered with UNHCR, 50,000 of whom are Rohingyans but even that is under-reported as there are still many who are not officially registered. It’s not that they don’t want to, but the queue can be as long as 2 years!

Our aim now is to provide more quality services so that is why we want to go slowly and focus on achieving that.

5. Do you have any advice or message for healthcare professionals in general?

Firstly, it is in our nature to help. We are in this profession because we want to help people but if we just limit ourselves to our own world –hospitals and clinics – we do not know what is really happening in the outside world. There are people out there who need our help more than we know.

Secondly, it's a form of training. To work with complete facilities and equipment is very different compared to when you work in the field. For certain medical NGOs, working in the field means working in the orang asli or refugee settlements with limited resources, so you need to get creative with whatever you have. You must really equip yourself better clinically.

My advice, for sure, would be to volunteer with any medical NGOs. You will realize that you can offer so much more and it will make you a better person. Not just a better HCP to serve your patients at a hospital or clinic, but a better human being. We hope that more people will join us or any other medical NGOs out there. Ask yourself, if not us, then who else? MIMS

For more on the latest medical news, clinical reference and e-learning modules, sign up now for a FREE MIMS account.

Read more:

A cry for help: Malaysia scales up humanitarian aid for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh
“Celebrate, Commemorate and Collaborate”: Inspiring women leading the way in NGOs
3 doctors who go out of their way to help the underprivileged