THE parable is familiar: A poor woman says to two fishermen, “I’m hungry. Can you help?” The first gives her a fish. The second says “I’ll teach you to fish.”
But our woman is a refugee; she fled her homeland to escape war and persecution.
She says: “I know how to fish. I’m just not allowed to.”
Hameed is a refugee who is educated and has a wealth of experience in various organisations back in his home country. He is intelligent, articulate, determined and hard-working. In Malaysia, he is homeless. Hameed was persecuted in his home country due to his political opinions.
Fadwa, a 33-year-old single mother of two, works as a teacher. She loves and is committed to her work. However, her employer has withheld her wages for the past four months. She is fearful of taking the matter to court because as a refugee, she has no legal status or permission to work in Malaysia. Fadwa fled the ongoing civil war that is ravaging Syria.
Malaysia is not a signatory to the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees, or its 1967 Protocol. It has no legal or administrative framework to identify and protect refugees, although the Malaysian government has allowed them to remain in the country on humanitarian grounds for decades.
As of April 2017, there are 150,662 UNHCR-recognised refugees in Malaysia who have no permission to work or legal status. The law makes it an offence for undocumented persons to work as well as for employers to hire them.
However, to support themselves and their families, refugees find jobs within the Malaysian informal sector often in low-skilled fields such as construction, services, plantations, agriculture, manufacturing, or as domestic workers. In 2012, there were an estimated 60,000 refugees working informally in Malaysia.
Given their precarious legal status, they are frequently arrested and detained for months, and are at increased risk of being trafficked. They often work in exploitative conditions, without employment contracts or legal rights that are enforceable due to their irregular status. Women who are working are at increased risk of being subject to gender-based violence.
Globally, there are unprecedented numbers of refugees fleeing their homes to escape violence, torture and deprivation of liberty. Every minute, 24 refugees – children, women and men – flee from their countries in search of safety.
At the same time, governments and communities in the United States, Europe and around the world are increasingly concerned about security and managing their undocumented migrant populations.
The world is struggling to find a response, but there could be a way forward.
Research is increasingly showing that refugees like Fadwa and Hameed come with qualifications, experiences and skills that can positively contribute to the host economy and allow them to rebuild their lives if they are only permitted to.
Research by the Refugee Studies Centre in Oxford on the economic life of refugees in Uganda, a country that has allowed refugees to work for a little more than a decade, was ground-breaking. In Kampala, Uganda’s capital, 21% of refugees run a business that employs at least one other person; of those they employ, 40% are citizens of the host country, increasing the number of jobs available to nationals.
In the US, 40% of US Fortune 500 companies were started by refugees and other immigrants or their children. There are many other examples.
Malaysia is a strong candidate for the incorporation of refugees into the economy. Economically, as of 2016, Malaysia is the 27th largest economy in the world and has a low unemployment rate. It is also very dependent on foreign labour and can easily absorb the relatively small number of refugees into the workforce.
Our government is poised to take leadership on this. It is currently piloting a project to allow 300 Rohingya refugees to work in the plantation sector. This is a positive initiative by the government, recognising the need for refugees to attain a livelihood while at the same time supporting the national economy.
According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), refugees tend to have higher skill levels than the general population in origin countries. Their profiles are not economically homogeneous and they can work in high-skilled sectors or invent new opportunities if given the chance.
Given the positive protection and economic benefits that can come from providing refugees the legal right to work, the Malaysian government should consider expanding pilots into other sectors and with other refugee populations.
Refugees who come to Malaysia cannot go home and very few are resettled. They seek safety but also come with experiences, skills and a strong desire to give back to their host communities.
This World Refugee Day, let’s commit to removing the barriers that prevent refugees from working and let them begin rebuilding their lives for the benefit of our country, our communities and the refugees themselves.
Asylum Access Malaysia