KUALA LUMPUR: Two years ago, at the height of the Syrian civil war, 21-year-old Abla Nasir fled her country and sought refuge in Malaysia.
With a degree in Tourism Science, Aviation and Hotels from Damascus University, Abla should have been able to work as a flight attendant, or manage hotels and restaurants.
Instead, she is currently juggling two jobs just to have enough to help her parents and little brother who are still in Syria – all because she is a refugee.
“I have to work a lot. Besides working with the International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC), I am also teaching English for kids,” Abla, now 23, said.
The ICMC provides free counselling services to refugees.
Due to her refugee status, Abla finds it hard to get a job that would match her qualification.
“I was looking for jobs here and there when I first got here,” she told FMT after a United Nations event on gender-based violence.
“I’ve worked as a personal trainer, teaching English to kids, in customer service, and in restaurants.
“When I go for interviews, the first thing they ask is whether I’m a refugee,” she said.
Initially, Abla found it hard to answer the question but she soon got used to it and realised that it was an important detail to prospective employers.
“It’s getting more normal for me, so now I expect to be asked this question,” she added.
Sometimes, to get around the questions, Abla emails her application or applies for work through job sites.
However, the problems start when she is called for an interview.
“And then I come in for the interview and they will ask (whether I am a refugee). It’s all a cycle I have to go through over and over again,” she said.
Abla, who declined to be photographed, has a Malaysian half-brother who sometimes helps her out. Otherwise, she is completely on her own.
“I’m trying to have stability because I want to support my family. I’m trying to be strong for them.”
Abla said she did not want to add to her family’s burden back home where her father runs a bakery and sells clothes.
Abla is one of the five million displaced Syrians who have sought asylum outside of Syria since the war began almost eight years ago, according to data by the UN.
Employers’ woes when hiring refugees
Federation of Malaysian Manufacturers vice-president Nathan K Suppiah said refugees did not have any legal status for employment in the country as Malaysia is not a signatory to the UN refugee convention or any other protocol.
“Even if employment is allowed, it would be difficult to verify their qualifications and experience,” he told FMT.
Nathan said due to the problems, refugees often ended up doing 3D (dirty, dangerous and difficult) jobs where they were more vulnerable to exploitation.
He said Malaysia would not be able to escape from the worldwide refugee crisis and as such, he suggested that holistic programmes and screening processes be held to prepare refugees for employment in local sectors.
“This will certainly provide relief from the labour shortage to an extent.”
However, Nathan added that the refugees might take advantage of “Malaysian hospitality” and use the country as a transit hub.
Meanwhile, Malaysian Employers Federation executive director Shamsuddin Bardan said hiring refugees was not easy.
The validity of their refugee status itself was a problem, he said.
“The UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) initiated an ID programme, but the government found many of the IDs were fake. This is something that UNHCR and possibly the government can resolve together,” he told FMT.
He said employers were not keen on hiring refugees despite their qualifications and degrees as they preferred to hire local professionals.
However, employers would enjoy greater cost-benefit if they were to hire refugees for labour-oriented jobs, such as in plantations, he said.
“We are keen to employ them, there is no cost to bring them into the country as they are already here. They also already have their own accommodation in the country,” Shamsuddin said.
However, he said most refugees were not keen to work away from the cities.