A Rohingya Muslim woman from Myanmar holds her child as they arrive at Kuala Kedah Jetty, in Kedah State, Malaysia, April 3, 2018. Stringer/EPA

The right to work can empower refugees in Malaysia

Malaysia hosts more than 170,000 refugees – significantly higher than neighbouring Indonesia that hosts a little more than 14,000. The new Malaysian government, elected in May 2018, has pledged to ratify the international refugee convention and allow refugees to work in the country. But it has yet to do so.

Ratifying the refugee convention can be extremely difficult, if not impossible, in a country such as Malaysia. The new government faced political backlash by opposition forces when it moved to ratify the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination last year.

Nevertheless, giving refugees the right to work could be beneficial for all parties. In the policy the government is considering, the right to work does not translate into permanent residency, let alone citizenship.

The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) has proposed the right to work complement three durable solutions for refugees: voluntary repatriation (go back to their home country if the circumstances allow), local integration and resettlement.

The legal right to work would enable refugees to accumulate social and capital resources, which could help them find a solution appropriate for their unique circumstances.

Refugee context in Malaysia

Malaysia is yet to sign up to the United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 protocol, and it has no legal or administrative framework for dealing with refugees. The state has been hosting refugees based on humanitarianism on a case by case basis.

According to the UNHCR, by the end of May 2019, there were 173,730 registered refugees and asylum-seekers from various countries in Malaysia. Of these, 68% were men and 32% women. There were also 44,130 children under the age of 18.

With no legal status, refugees are not allowed to work, or access education and affordable healthcare.

Historically, Malaysia has issued temporary work permits (known as IMM13). These are permitted under Section 55(1) of the Immigration Act 1959/1963 (Act 155), which gives discretionary power to the home affairs minister to exempt a group of people from being subjected to the law.

These permits were issued to some of Moro from the Philippines, Acehnese from Indonesia, and recently Syrian refugees, for humanitarian reasons, as well as to fill the labour gap.

Benefits of the right to work

The right to work provides a layer of protection for refugees, who become “workers”. Having a legal status is the gateway to decent work. This is in line with the Sustainable Development Goals agenda, as there are grieving mechanisms such as access to justice and relevant support if labour rights are violated.

Like everyone else, refugees need to earn a living to support their livelihoods, especially given they have lost most, if not all, of their productive assets after fleeing their home countries.

If they earn enough, parents can send their children to community-based learning centres. Currently, only around 30% of child refugees attend these under-resourced schools. These schools charge from 30-150 ringgit per month, according to activists working on the ground.

With access to education, children are protected from being forced to work as undocumented labourers. This is also in line with the spirit of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, already ratified by Malaysia.

Employment will also help refugees attain dignity. It provides agency to refugees. They can contribute to the host community instead of being passive victims dependent on assistance and charity. And it will help correct the false narrative of refugees being a burden on the host country.

If the government grants refugees the right to work, they might contribute more than 3 billion ringgit (around US$724 million) to Malaysia’s GDP by 2024 with more than 50 million ringgit in tax revenue increase each year by expanding the tax base, according to a recent report by IDEAS. Employing refugees could complement local workers instead of substituting them and would create up to 4,300 jobs for Malaysians.

Malaysia can also reduce the costs of law enforcement, associated with arrest and detention of refugees who work illegally. Legal work rights could help eliminate forced labour and debt bondage, which affect the refugee community. This can improve Malaysia’s Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP) record, which remains a Tier 2 country on the US state department’s watch list in 2019.

This will ensure transparent business practices, including preventing tax revenue loss in the informal economy, improving Malaysia’s standing as an investment-friendly country.

Essential caveats

Georgina Ramsay, an anthropology expert from the University of Delaware, US, has warned against seeing refugees as productive economic units that could undermine the protection accorded to them under the global humanitarian framework. It could lead to host states shunning their responsibility to provide support and care for refugees.

Despite this concern, I argue the right to work is important for refugees in Malaysia due to the state’s complete inaction in the issue.

To make this policy work, I propose there should be caveats. First, refugees must not be categorised as “migrant workers”. Second, there should be no rivalry between pursuing refugees’ and migrants’ needs in the labour market.

These conditions are to ensure economic incentives do not overshadow humanitarian interest. They will also help prevent additional xenophobia and racism that may emerge.

Granting the right to work is not the ultimate solution to challenges faced by refugees.

However, it is the first crucial step, that can be done immediately, even before Malaysia signs the refugee convention. The legal right to work could empower refugees to thrive, not just survive, which benefits Malaysia in the short and long terms.