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Accord right to work for refugees and asylum seekers

June 20, 2012

FMT LETTER: From Tze Yeng Ng, via e-mail

In conjunction with World Refugee Day, we call on the government to accord the right to work for refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia. There are 98,100 refugees and asylum-seekers registered with United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in Malaysia.

Ninty-two percent are from Burma’s different ethnic groups. 8,200 are from Sri Lanka, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries. Refugees and asylum seekers are considered “illegal immigrants” under Malaysian law, specifically the Immigration Act 1959/63 (Act 155).

Unable to work legally in the country, they survive by working in the informal and often unregulated work sectors, performing ‘3-D work’(dirty, demanding, dangerous) without legal protection.  This increases their vulnerability to forced labor and human trafficking and its negative consequences for ill-health.

This is evidenced in Health Equity Initiative’s research report ‘Forced Labour, Human Trafficking and Forced Labour: The Experiences of Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Malaysia’. This research revealed a high prevalence of forced labour and mental health distress whereby 61.2% of refugees and asylum seekers in the 1,074 study population who had worked full time had experienced forced labour.

About 70% of the respondents showed symptoms of Depression and 68% showed signs of Anxiety. In-depth interviews revealed practices of deception and fraud, withholding of wages, physical confinement, non-payment of wages, threats of denunciation to authorities, induced indebtedness, physical violence, and sale into ownership by their employers.

The social and legal factors contributing to the mental ill health in this population living and working side by side with Malaysians needs to be urgently addressed. We therefore call on the Malaysian government to:

(1)  Accord refugees and asylum seekers the right to work

(2)  Recognise refugees and asylum seekers and ratify the 1951 United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol Regulate the labor sector to prevent and protect against exploitation and forced labor

(3)  Ensure that all persons who have experienced human trafficking and forced labor, regardless of their legal status,  have access to appropriate legal, medical and protection services and that they will not be refouled

This letter is signed by 20 NGOs


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