Why refugees in Malaysia should be allowed to work

By Federico Rodriguez

I would like to respond to the article published on May 25 in FMT entitled “Don’t allow refugees to work, says MTUC”.

As Policy Advocate for Asylum Access Malaysia, a non-profit organisation that conducts research and provides direct legal services to refugees, I wish to present to your readers a more balanced and constructive perspective on the issue of refugee work rights in Malaysia.

The article states that Abdul Halim Mansor, President of The Malaysian Trades Union Congress (MTUC) says refugees who are in the country under the protection of the United Nations should not be allowed to stay in Malaysia for longer than three months, and that they should be banned from working, even to do odd jobs.

Although his concerns surrounding foreign workers, including refugees, are understandable, it is important to dispel the negative misperceptions and myths about refugee work rights.

In Malaysia, refugees are caught in a protracted situation. They cannot return to their countries for fear of persecution, and only a very small number of refugees (3%-4%) are eligible for resettlement to a third country. For most, life in Malaysia is their only available option.

Contrary to popular perception, allowing refugees to work will not lead to more migrants coming into Malaysia. No evidence suggests that work rights will increase the number of refugees arriving in a country.

The strict procedures by the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) to determine refugee status ensure that the system cannot be inappropriately misused by other types of migrants, and the advanced security features of the UNHCR refugee identity card also ensures that no other persons can pose as refugees to access benefits.

Refugees in Malaysia are not a burden to society and a strain on public services. In comparison to labour migrants, refugees registered with the UN make up less than 7% of the total number of immigrants in Malaysia. At present, refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia are supported by the UNHCR and civil society, and the actual costs to the Malaysian government and taxpayers are limited.

Successful employment of refugees is beneficial as there will be fewer costs in providing social assistance while Malaysian society is more likely to be cohesive as refugees integrate.

Given the continuing high demand for foreign labour in Malaysia, the government can take advantage of refugees already living in the country, and reduce its dependence on foreign workers. In its manifesto, Pakatan Harapan promised (Promise 35) to legitimise the status of refugees by providing them with UNHCR cards and ensuring their legal right to work, recognising that “this initiative will reduce the country’s need for foreign workers and lower the risk of refugees from becoming involved in criminal activities and underground economies.”

Despite the common concern among local populations that refugees will lower wages and lead to higher unemployment, they make up a very small fraction of the labour force and do not present a threat to the employment of locals.

Lack of lawful employment forces refugees to engage in informal and low skilled sectors, especially in positions that Malaysians often shun and where the need for foreign labour is clear.

Allowing refugees access to work permits will also positively impact nationals by putting a stop to the undercutting of wages.

Refugees have a wide range of skills and a strong will to support themselves and their families while giving back to their host communities. Given the chance they can create job opportunities for themselves and for Malaysians.

In Malaysia’s case, research shows that 836 new full-time jobs and 169 part-time jobs are created for Malaysian workers for every 1,000 new foreigners that enter a given sector in a given state, countering misperceptions that foreign labour limits opportunities for nationals.

Regularisation of undocumented refugee workers would provide an opportunity to increase revenue collection through income taxes. Refugees are estimated to contribute an additional RM1,150,000 in expenditures on local goods and services and generate RM120,000,000 in worker registration fees for the Malaysian government.

Furthermore, allowing refugees to work would address any concerns over law and order, organised crime, and potential threats to national security through a government registration scheme that could capture biometric data, which will ensure that the identity, health, and security of refugees can be readily identified and tracked over time, therefore decreasing the risk of human trafficking, smuggling and forced labour.

As Melissa Wong from the Centre for Public Policy Studies argues in her commentary “Why refugees should be given the right to work” (FMT, May 21, 2018), it’s time to start thinking in the long term and break free from the current but outdated international approach to handling refugees that relies on individual states or the international community acting as temporary hosts to feed and shelter refugees.

Malaysia’s new government has promised to ratify the UN Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, and grant refugees the right to work.

Fulfilling these promises will bring positive benefits to the Malaysian economy and national security, while ensuring refugees’ protection under international and domestic laws.

It will also improve Malaysia’s image abroad and its questionable human rights record. This is a win-win situation for Malaysia and refugees alike.

Federico Rodriguez is Policy Advocate for Asylum Access Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.

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