Give priority to refugees instead of importing more foreign labour

Last week, Pakistan’s High Commissioner to Malaysia, Amna Baloch, announced that her country was negotiating with Malaysia to provide up to 150,000 low-skilled workers as security guards. She also indicated that the 2005 Malaysia-Pakistan MOU under which some 10,000 to 15,000 Pakistani workers are sent to Malaysia annually would be revised to boost the employment of Pakistanis in Malaysia.

While the high commissioner was, of course, quite elated by this potential windfall for Pakistan (which earned US$23 billion last year from overseas remittances), most Malaysians were undoubtedly dismayed and disappointed by the news that their government is once again negotiating the large-scale importation of foreign labour without adequate discussion and feedback from all concerned stakeholders.

How long can we go on importing cheap foreign labour? How many foreign workers can the economy sustain? Is it fair to Malaysians to keep wage levels low by constantly importing cheap foreign labour? Shouldn’t preference in the security sector be given to our own retired soldiers and policemen?

While we might, of course, need to rely on imported labour to meet shortages in certain sectors, the absence of a holistic approach based on empirical data and transparent methodologies has resulted in what can only be described as a broken system which fosters corruption, exploitation and the abuse of power.

But there’s another aspect to this whole situation that is just as scandalous: the plight of hundreds of thousands of refugees in Malaysia. They come from everywhere – impoverished Yemenis fleeing the brutal Saudi bombing campaign against their country; desperate Rohingya fleeing genocide at the hands of a murderous regime; Muslim Uighurs and Pakistani Christians fleeing religious persecution in their own homelands.

To our great shame, we have not dealt justly with them. They live in appalling conditions and regularly face exploitation and abuse, harassment and intimidation. They live in great fear and anxiety knowing that at any time they could be caught, imprisoned and deported. For many, they have exchanged one living hell for another.

You only have to hear their stories to know that something terrible and heinous is happening right under our noses. Perhaps we’d rather not know because we like to think of ourselves as a compassionate and caring society. In truth, we are sleepwalking through the nightmare that thousands endure each day in our country.

The biggest challenge that refugees face, apart from the harassment and intimidation, is sustaining themselves. They don’t want to be a burden to anyone. They don’t want our charity. They are more than willing to work to sustain themselves and their families. The problem is that our government neither recognises their status as refugees nor accords them the right to work. In effect, government policies condemn them to poverty, exploitation and abuse.

It makes no sense to go on recruiting thousands of low-skilled workers from Pakistan or other countries when we already have a vast pool of unskilled labour right here in our own backyard, thousands of hard-pressed refugees desperate for employment, willing to do even the most menial of jobs to support their families. They are here. They are not going anywhere any time soon. Why not use them to meet the demand for labour?

Surely, it is not too difficult to formulate a regulatory framework that would offer some protection to refugees, some opportunity for them to work, some access to healthcare and education.

Under the former Barisan Nasional government, there was little hope for the reform of our immigration and refugee policy because too many politicians, officials and cronies profited from the trade in migrant workers and the exploitation of refugees.

As Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission chief Latheefa Koya noted, the whole system was rife with corruption. In fact, the reality was far worse; it was nothing short of a vast and immoral criminal enterprise that profited from human misery at every level.

A Suhakam report last year estimated that in Malaysia the human trafficking trade generated between RM174-RM349 million annually. The discovery of death camps and mass graves along the Malaysia-Thai border were also a shocking indictment of official neglect and even connivance.

Other BN initiatives such as the introduction of the MyRC card for refugees were, at best, of dubious efficacy. Introduced in 2017, it was touted as a policy to protect refugees and asylum seekers. The then deputy home affairs minister, Nur Jazlan Mohamed, explaining why it was mandatory for all UNHCR cardholders to apply for a MyRC card said, “We want to ensure these refugees are protected… local authorities will respect this card, and refugees won’t be subjected to abuse by those who want to take advantage of their refugee status….” He went on to assure refugees that they had nothing to fear and that “their status as refugees will continue to be maintained and respected by the government….”

What was not widely reported at the time was that the issuance of the card was privatised to a little-known company which lists its interests as “general trading, investment and properties.” What is shocking is that the fee for the card is RM500 per person per year, an intolerable burden for any refugee family. A Malaysian passport, by comparison, which is valid for five years costs only RM200.

On its website, the company encourages refugees to apply for the card to “minimise the risk of being arrested and detained.” It even claims that MyRC cardholders will be allowed to stay temporarily in Malaysia.

According to those involved in refugee advocacy, however, the card (which carries the signatures of both the inspector-general of police and the director-general of immigration) is next to worthless. It offers little or no protection at all. Indeed, many question whether it is even recognised by the police or immigration authorities. Certainly, a number of refugees presently languishing in detention facilities while awaiting deportation hold MyRC documentation.

If even a third of the estimated 150,000 refugees registered with UNHCR apply for the card, the company, which is still operating, stands to make at least RM25 million a year just for issuing these apparently worthless documents. The home minister should urgently clarify the status of these cards and the nature of the protection it affords refugees.

Unfortunately, not much has changed in the year and a half since Pakatan Harapan came to power. To be sure, there are many pressing issues facing the government after decades of mismanagement, corruption and neglect. But we now have a government that is more honest, more decent, more committed to human rights; responding adequately to the terrible plight of refugees must be put at the top of the national agenda together with other priorities.

The government should work with UNHCR, facilitate its work and honour the refugee cards it issues. If there is a need to issue different identification cards, it should be handled directly by the government and given without the exorbitant fees that are now imposed on refugees.

It’s important, of course, for Malaysia to also accede to the UN Refugee Convention but in the meantime, crafting a fair and sensible refugee policy that protects refugees from harassment, intimidation and internment, and allows them to work and have access to medical treatment and schooling is an obligation that no civilised nation can neglect.

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