October 4, 2022

Refugees need to work

5 min read

WE welcome the announcement of a government decision on the rights of refugees to legal employment, with great hopes of a favourable resolution by the Malaysian Cabinet (“Govt to decide on allowing refugees to work in Dec”, The Star, Nov 18; online at bit.ly/star_decision). This announcement has been long awaited by many advocating for and supporting this population of communities and individuals currently seeking refuge in Malaysia from war and terror in their home nations.

In April 2019, a refugee-led advocacy campaign group was formed, consisting of refugee leaders and representatives of various communities, such as the Rohingya, Chin, Myanmar Muslim, Palestinian and others. This group, ReAct (Refugee Action for Change), was founded after a consultation event on refugee issues that was attended by refugee community leaders and representatives, advocate NGOs, the UNHCR refugee agency, and officers from the Malaysian government.

Supported by NGOs Beyond Borders and Tenaganita, the campaign group has worked on advocating for the right to work, education and healthcare for all refugee communities in Malaysia. Aside from regular working group meetings, the campaign group continues to build its capacity to advocate for these issues through workshops.

Through these various efforts, ReAct suggests the Malaysian government considers implementing the recognition of refugees and their right to work through the IMM13 special pass, then possibly expanding the scope of the policy to include their rights to education and healthcare in due course. The proposal to use IMM13 comes with the rationale of reducing the amount of resources it would take to create and implement a new policy and guidelines by building upon an existing framework.

However, with this suggestion, ReAct notes that while the IMM13 policy was designed and drafted sufficiently well, the implementation of the policy has had its challenges over the years. For example, a significant number of Syrian refugees who obtained the Mahar (Malaysian Humanitarian Aid & Relief organisation) visa through IMM13 were unable to fully access the rights awarded to them through this documentation mechanism.

Some found it difficult to access healthcare and academic institutions while others experienced challenges in obtaining legal employment.

As such, should the government consider this model of IMM13 as the foundation to implement work rights for refugees, ReAct would further suggest a thorough assessment and putting more thought into a more efficient implementation of the policy across all relevant bodies and institutions.

A positive government commitment to awarding the right to work for refugees would fulfil two promises in Pakatan Harapan’s election manifesto while also upholding our nation’s compassionate values and obligations as a United Nations member state in championing and safeguarding the rights and dignity of vulnerable and marginalised communities.

Pakatan’s manifesto promise No.35 expressed the importance of enforcing equal labour rights for refugees to avoid subjecting the population to oppression and fulfilling the coalition’s desire to assist refugees in building new lives. Manifesto promise No.59 further notes the pledge to ratify the 1951 International Convention on Refugees and recognise their status as individuals fleeing war and terror and providing our nation the capacity to assist these communities as needed.

By fulfilling these promises through a positive decision come mid-December, the nation would additionally act in respect to several articles of the Universal Decla-ration of Human Rights (Articles 1, 3, 6, 7, 14.1, 23.1, 23.2 and 23.3). These articles include the right of every person to a life of dignity and equal treatment before the law, the right to seek asylum, and the right to employment, among others.

Beyond this, we stress the importance of a decision on equitable access to work rights for all working age refugees regardless of their country of origin or ethnicity. In the previous government’s effort to run a pilot work rights for refugees programme, only Rohingya men obtained access to work in the plantation and manufacturing sectors. However, despite the good intentions, the programme failed with a significantly low number of individuals signing up for it.

The failure of the programme may be attributed to the lack of preliminary research and community assessment in identifying the existing skills and capacities of those eligible for the programme. Plantation work often requires workers to live in isolated surrounds but Rohingya culture is not suited to this, as the united family unit is the community’s cornerstone value. Thus, in the end, it proved difficult to find Rohingya men who were willing to leave their families to work in sectors they were not skilled in to begin with.

From this example comes our suggestion for the Cabinet as it considers establishing work rights for refugees: The refugee community in Malaysia is extremely diverse, coming from different countries; and even those from Myanmar originate from different regions of the country and have varying skill sets. Some come with great experience in agriculture and plantations while others may be more suited for sectors such as construction and manufacturing. The government should thoroughly assess and engage with all communities to identify their best skill sets.

Allowing all refugees equal access to employment regardless of their country of origin, nationality or ethnicity would avoid any form of privilege and segregation within the refugee community and uphold the Malaysian spirit of recognising harmony in diversity.

With a comprehensive and inclusive approach to enforcing work rights for refugees, the government can then most efficiently and appropriately gain from the many great skills and potential contributions of refugees in moving the nation towards developed status.

Noting the need for a thorough and comprehensive refugee policy, not just in the matter of work rights but also in their access to other basic human rights including education and healthcare, we hope to ascertain if there will be a concrete government policy on the general rights of refugees.

A favourable and equitable

decision on work rights for refugees in Malaysia would not only be in line with several of Pakatan’s obligations and pledges, but would also serve as a notable example to other nations in similar situations as transit host countries for refugees.

The several undersigned international supporters of this statement currently look to Malaysia, in anticipation of this decision, potentially as a role model in upholding the rights of refugees.


Note: This letter is endorsed by 37 local, three regional and 11 international NGOs