A Malaysia for all – including refugees

Sometimes 20, Sometimes 30 - It’s normal for refugees to live in small flats with up to 30 people, who may all be replaced the next week. For survival, they live wherever job opportunities take them - Photograph: UNHCR

As we celebrate World Refugee Day on 20 June, Agora Society calls on more Malaysians to come forward and provide support to the refugee communities in our midst and to appreciate one another for having made Malaysia a land of diversity collectively.

According to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, fewer than 1% of refugees are successfully resettled to a third countries globally. This is because countries that willing to receive them are few and the quotas limited. So being stranded in a country of asylum that is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention – such as Malaysia – is an everyday reality for the vast majority of refugees worldwide.

What aggravates the already precarious situation of the refugees in Malaysia is that they are not allowed to work legally, and those who do work, do so at their own peril.

Given the ongoing operations against undocumented migrants, one can imagine the risks they face daily. UNHCR papers do not always ensure protection because the Malaysian authorities continue to see asylum seekers and refugees as “illegal migrants” and, worse, a threat to public or national security despite very few of them having committed a crime.

For the benefit of everyone, the government should allow asylum seekers and refugees to work legally. This would ensure their access to a decent livelihood, and the government could also collect taxes from them if they meet tax threshold. After all, most of the migrants have been doing jobs shunned by locals, and the Malaysian economy heavily depends on migrant labour.

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The Malaysian Employers Federation, for instance, has long been advocating for refugee work rights. Asylum seekers and refugees already in the country serve as a ready source of labour, which could save many business owners the red tape of recruiting workers from abroad as well as the nightmare of paying fees to various agencies and middle persons.

Even if the government refuses to grant asylum seekers and refugees the right to work, the least it can do is allow the UNHCR and other humanitarian organisations to do their job.

Ironically, it was under the Pakatan Harapan administration that the UNHCR was banned from providing legal assistance to asylum seekers and refugees – with vulnerable children and women among them – in detention centres and prisons. Recently, Home Minister Hamzah Zainudin from Perikatan Nasional maintained the same position.

How can Malaysia feel proud to champion internationally the cause of the oppressed Palestinians under Israeli occupation while committing injustice to the poor asylum seekers and refugees on our soil?

Until and unless the conditions in their countries of origin have improved so that it is safe for them to return, telling them to go back would be an act of cruelty.

A few years ago, many thought Myanmar refugees – who form the bulk of the refugee caseload of the UNHCR in Malaysia – should go home since they had “successfully” elected a democratic government, but it took only a military coup to reverse 10 years of democratic progress and the country is again on the verge of a full-scale civil war. To tell Myanmar refugees to go back to where they came from is akin to sending them to death.

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Refugees are left with local integration if voluntary returns or resettlement is voluntary returns are not possible. Then again, Malaysia is not known as a country friendly to immigrants and has for years been grappling with the toxic issue of racial and religious politics.

Thus, locally integrating refugees with different ethnic backgrounds, cultures, languages and religions will no doubt meet with the fiercest opposition. One only has to look at the irrational, hysterical and xenophobic responses of many Malaysians to the fake news of the Rohingya refugee community demanding Malaysian citizenship last year.

In short, the future of the various refugee communities in Malaysia remains bleak. The good news is, more and more people are becoming aware of the issue, with more organisations having emerged over the years to respond to the needs of asylum seekers and refugees, or even to provide them with opportunities of empowerment.

Slow the process may be, it indicates there are Malaysians who care about them and are ready to fill the gap. – Agora

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