Tarmizi Anwar, APMA 2018

Refugees are a global issue. Annually, the number of refugees around the world continues to increase. Based on records released by the World Bank, within six years, 164.59% of the world’s total refugees increased from 15,417,874 in 2012 to 25,376,316 in 2017.

Shortly after World War II, an international convention on refugees was established, namely the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees or the 1951 Refugee Convention. To date, 143 countries have signed and become parties to this convention.

In Article 1 of the Convention, refugees are defined as persons who are unable to protect themselves, or those who have escaped from war, or people who are persecuted by race, religion, nationality, membership in certain social groups and their political holdings. They are seen to be protected from the threats made to their personal rights.

The increasing trend in the number of refugees every year is alarming as it shows that global respect for human rights decreases accordingly. Basically, if human rights conditions are respected in every country, refugees will not exist. However, the political crisis or conflict in several countries proves otherwise.

Human rights issues are often referred to in the general public. These rights are guaranteed under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and in Malaysia, are embodied under the Malaysian Constitution.

In discussing rights issues, the focus is often given to the rights of local people. Often, we forget about the rights of refugees. Refugees are those who have been granted protection in a country for some reason as evicted or threatened to kill by their home country.

No. Country Total of Refugee
1 Brunei Darussalam 0
2 Cambodia 61
3 Indonesia 9777
4 Lao PDR 0
5 Malaysia 103,792
6 Myanmar 0
7 Philippines 482
8 Singapore 0
9 Thailand 104585
10 Viet Nam 0
Total 218,697

Source: The World Bank (2017)

As of 2017, Malaysia is the second highest country to host refugees of 103,792 people in South East Asia, after Thailand. Meanwhile, in terms of percentage, Malaysia manages 47.45 percent of the total 218,697 refugees in South East Asia.

The refugee crisis is not only a matter of concern by the original state involved, but also the destination countries it affects. One of the cases that has greatly affected Malaysia is the exodus of ethnic Rohingya from their home country, Myanmar. There are many Rohingya ethnic communities and nationals who have been sheltered in Malaysia even before 2010. In fact, as of 2017, there are 152,000 UNHCR cardholders from 62 countries that have been granted protection in Malaysia.

Statistics show that 90 percent of these are from Myanmar, with 56,000 people from the Rohingya ethnic group. Other statistics say that this amount does not include the thousands of asylum seekers in Malaysia who remain without valid documents.

In the international context, the fundamental rights of a refugee are covered and described in detail under the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. However, Malaysia is not a member of the convention, and issues related to refugees are based on provisions under the Immigration Act 1959/63, where refugees are only regarded as foreign immigrants. This is because there is still no formal law in Malaysia that recognizes the rights of a refugee.

In 2015, Datuk Seri Shahidan Kassim as Minister in the Department of Prime Minister Office clarified that the state refuses to be a member of the convention for fear of failing to meet the convention’s demands as well as other issues that need to be given priority, including the provision of employment opportunities to the people of Malaysia.

With the absence of this law, most refugees cannot enjoy basic rights such as the right to work, health, shelter and so forth, even if they have UNHCR cards.

Refugees in Malaysia, unlike in other Western countries, are not allowed to work legally. Some of them are even oppressed and are not even entitled to decent wages even though they have been promised such. For instance, Rohingya refugees who have settled in Ampang and Klang have struggled to continue their daily lives. They have to do illegal work like collecting scrap iron or performing labor even in hazardous conditions – all in pursuit of survival.

There are various parties, especially NGOs who have urged the government to change this policy. In 2017, these claims and demands have been answered by the Malaysian government. Deputy Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Dr. Ahmad Zahid Hamidi has announced that ethnic Rohingya refugees will be allowed to work in Malaysia beginning in 2017.

However, there are also opposing parties to refugees being given the right to work. In particular, the Malaysian Trades Union Congress (MTUC) says refugees should not be employed, and the government does not need to allocate funds to assist refugees as the country does not sign the 1951 Refugee Agreement.

Furthermore, although the Malaysian government has stated that it wants to grant the right to work for refugees, until today there is no law or policy that officializes this statement. In fact, the effort only focused on Rohingya refugees and not to other refugees.

A study conducted by the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS) suggests that if the right to work for refugees in Malaysia is recognized, this will lead to a positive impact on the economy. Based on the number of refugees in Malaysia, IDEAS expects that the contribution to the country’s GDP will increase to more than RM3 billion by 2024. This may indirectly lead the economy away from poverty and improve the overall standard of living of society. It also reduces dependence on the government through welfare assistance. IDEAS also expects that refugees tax contributions to the country will reach more than RM50 million annually by 2024, including levy payments and health care discounts.

The recognition of the right to work will also lead to the improvement of the quality of health of the refugees, as the former provides access to quality healthcare and insurance. For example, salaries received by employees are also accompanied by  medical consultations and access to better-quality medicines.

In conclusion, Malaysia is largely backward in granting human rights to refugees, with the absence of legal mechanisms that allow refugees to work in Malaysia. It is necessary that the government implements a clear legal regulation that allows refugees to work in Malaysia. To achieve this, Malaysia should then consider signing the 1951 Refugee Convention and recognize the rights of refugees according to international standards.

Photo from Free Malaysia Today

*This opinion piece was written in 2018.

*The contents of this opinion piece are solely those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the view of the either Global Campus of Human Rights Asia Pacific, the universities under it, or the APMA program.

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