Dear Tun, great UN speech, but…

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In an open letter to Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad, Jeyakumar Devaraj calls on the government to recognise the category of refugees and allow them the right to work.

Dear Tun Dr Mahathir,

I would like to congratulate you on the well-crafted speech you delivered at the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly on 28 September.

You called out the failure of the West to curtail Zionist expansionism and highlighted the ongoing oppression of the Palestinian people.

You pointed out that the existing rules governing the global economy constrict the capacity of governments to address poverty and marginalisation within their countries.

And you criticised the archaic system that grants each of the five permanent members of the Security Council of the United Nations the right to veto any resolution tabled there.

Your forthright stance on the world stage made us all proud to be Malaysians.

But there was one issue where I felt you were on thin ice – the Rohingya issue. You were absolutely correct in stating that gross injustice is being perpetuated on the Rohingya community by the authorities in Myanmar. But is our own handling of the Rohingya and other refugees who come to our shores beyond reproach?

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I am sure you would know that Malaysia still does not officially recognise the category of refugees. We group them together with economic migrants without documents – the Pati, “Pendatang Asing Tanpa Izin” – and routinely harass them by arresting and detaining them.

Even when they manage to get a UNHCR card that attests that they are indeed refugees, we do not grant them the right to work. But as no one gives them a stipend to live on, they have to work “illegally” which opens them up to abuse by some unscrupulous employers and further harassment by enforcement agencies.

Their access to healthcare is limited by the high charges in government centres and the risk of being arrested when they go there, and their children are barred from our schools.

Isn’t it time we walked the talk, Tun? If ratifying the UN Convention on Refugees is too big a step to take all at once, can’t we at the very least implement a few of the provisions from that convention?

First, I would suggest that Malaysia immediately recognises the category of refugees and empower the Immigration Department to speedily evaluate all those claiming to have run from their countries to avoid persecution along ethnic, religious or political lines.Those found to satisfy the criteria should be given identity cards that attest that they are indeed refugees.

Second, we should also grant work permits to refugees so that they can work legally and be protected from abuse in the workplace.

Just these two steps would greatly alleviate the problems that the Rohingya and other refugees in Malaysia are facing.

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We already have two million migrant workers with valid documents. There are only 180,000 refugees in our country at present, and a significant number of them are children. An additional 150,000 work permits can be easily absorbed by our economy, and it would greatly help the refugee community.

I know it is now only five months since the Pakatan Harapan came to power and that there are many pressing issues to look into. But the above two suggestions listed above have been brought up many times by diverse groups and they are not that difficult or costly to implement.

I really hope that you and your administration will act resolutely to reduce the victimisation of refugees and asylum seekers within our borders. That would also enhance our credibility on the world stage.

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