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Establish the right to work for all refugees in M'sia

LETTER | We welcome the announcement of a government decision on the rights of refugees to legal employment, with great hopes of a favourable resolution by the Malaysian cabinet. This announcement has been long-awaited by many advocating and supporting this population of communities and individuals currently seeking refuge and safety in Malaysia from the war and terrors affecting their home nations.

In April 2019, a refugee-led advocacy campaign group was formed, consisting of refugee leaders and representatives of various communities, such as the Rohingya, Chin, Myanmar Muslim, Palestinian and others. This group, ReAct (Refugee Action for Change), was founded after a consultation event on refugee issues, which was attended by refugee community leaders and representatives, advocate NGOs, UNHCR and officers from the Malaysian government. 

Supported by NGOs Beyond Borders and Tenaganita, the campaign group has worked on advocating for the right to work, education and healthcare for all refugee communities in Malaysia, with an overarching focus on registration and arbitrary arrests and detentions. Aside from regular working group meetings, the campaign group has and continues to build its capacity to advocate for these issues, through engagements in capacity-building workshops.

Through these various efforts, ReAct suggests to the Malaysian government to consider implementing the recognition of refugees and their work rights through IMM13, then possibly expanding the scope of the policy to include their rights to education and healthcare in due course. The proposal to use IMM13 comes with the rationale of reducing the number of resources it would take to create and implement a new policy and guidelines, but rather, to build upon an existing framework appropriately needed to suit the refugee community.

However, with this suggestion, ReAct notes that while the IMM13 policy was designed and drafted sufficiently well, the implementation of the policy has had its challenges over the years. For example, it has been noted that a significant number of Syrian refugees who obtained the Mahar visa through IMM13 were unable to fully access the rights awarded to them through this documentation mechanism. Some found it difficult to access healthcare and academic institutions, while others experienced challenges in obtaining legal employment.

As such, should the government consider this model of IMM13 as the foundation to implement work rights for refugees, ReAct would further suggest a thorough assessment and thought into a more efficient implementation of the policy across all relevant bodies and institutions.

A positive government commitment in awarding the right to work for refugees would be in line with fulfilling two promises from the Pakatan Harapan government’s manifesto, whilst upholding our nation’s compassionate values and obligations as a UN member state, in championing and safeguarding the rights and dignity of vulnerable and marginalised communities.

In the manifesto Promise 35, the government recognises the significant population of refugees residing in Malaysia, pledging to legitimise their status and ensuring their legal right to work. In this pledge, the government expresses the importance of enforcing equal labour rights of refugees, in avoidance of subjecting the population to oppression, whilst fulfilling its desire to assist refugees in building new lives.

Manifesto Promise 59 further notes the government’s pledge to ratify the 1951 International Convention on Refugees, thus recognising their status as individuals fleeing war and terror, to provide our nation with the capacity to assist these communities as appropriately needed.

By fulfilling these promises through a positive decision come mid-December, the nation would additionally act in respect to several articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 1, 3, 6, 7, 14.1, 23.1, 23.2 and 23.3). These articles include the rights of every person to a life of dignity and equal treatment before the law, the right to seek asylum and the right to employment, among others.

Beyond this, it would be worth stressing the importance of a decision on equitable access to work rights for all refugees of working-age, regardless of their country of origin, nationality or ethnicity.

In the previous government’s effort to run a pilot programme on employment rights for refugees, only Rohingya men obtained access to work in the plantation and manufacturing sectors. However with good intentions, the programme failed with a significantly low number of individuals signing up for it due to many proving unsuited for the jobs made available.

The failure of the programme may be attributed to the lack of preliminary research and community assessments, in identifying the existing skills and capacities of those eligible to be a part of the pilot. Plantation work often requires workers to stay in isolated vicinities, which is not an environment suited well with Rohingya culture, where the united family unit is a cornerstone value of the community. Thus, in the end, it proved difficult to find Rohingya men who were willing to leave their families to work in sectors which they were not adept or skilled to begin with.

From this case example comes a suggestion for the cabinet in their considerations in establishing work rights for refugees. The refugee community in Malaysia is extremely diverse, coming from different countries, and even those from Myanmar, originate from different regions of the country, with varying skill sets. Some come with great experience in agriculture and plantation, while others may be more suited for sectors such as construction and manufacturing. Not only should the government thoroughly assess and engage with these communities to identify their best skill sets, it should also not limit access to employment to a few select groups but rather to all refugees.

Allowing equal access for all refugees regardless of their country of origin, nationality or ethnicity would avoid any form of privilege and segregation within the refugee community, upholding the Malaysian spirit of recognising harmony in diversity.

With a comprehensive and inclusive approach to enforcing work rights for refugees, the government can then most efficiently and appropriately gain on the many great skills and potential contributions of refugees, in further building the nation towards a developed status.

In the government’s coming decision on work rights, we hope for information on what such policy may take further full form in. Noting the need for a thorough and comprehensive refugee policy to move forward, not just in the matter of work rights but in their access to other basic human rights including, but not limited to, education and health, we hope to ascertain if there will be a concrete government policy on this matter of the general rights of refugees in Malaysia.

A favourable and equitable decision on work rights for refugees in Malaysia would not only be in line with several government obligations and pledges of Harapan but would also serve as a notable example to other nations in similar situations as transit host countries for refugees. The several undersigned international supporters of this statement currently look to Malaysia, in anticipation of this decision, potentially as a role model in upholding the rights of refugees in its country.

The writer is executive director, Tenaganita Women’s Force. The above is endorsed by the following organisations: 


1. Alliance of Chin Refugees (ACR)

2. All Women's Action Society (Awam)

3. Al-Hasan Volunteer Network

4. Beyond Borders Malaysia

5. Chin Refugee Committee (CRC)

6. Coalition of Burma Ethnics Malaysia (Cobem)

7. Dai Community in Malaysia

8. Falam Refugee Organisation (FRO)

9. Freedom Film Network

10. Foreign Spouses Support Group (FSSG)

11. Health Equity Initiatives (HEI)

12. Instant Cafe Theatre

13. Justice for Sisters

14. Kryss Network

15. Malaysia Karen Organization (MKO)

16. Malaysia Muda

17. Malaysia Social Research Institute (MSRI)

18. Mon Refugee Community (MRO)

19. Myanmar Muslim Refugee Community (MMRC)

20. North South Initiative (NSI)

21. Organisation of Karenni Development (OKD)

22. Parastoo Theater Team

23. Persatuan Kesedaran Komuniti Selangor (Empower)

24. Persatuan Promosi Hak Asasi Manusia (Proham)

25. Persatuan Sahabat Wanita Selangor (PSWS)

26. Refugee Action for Change (ReAct)

27. Refuge for the Refugees

28. Save School for Refugees

29. Seksualiti Merdeka

30. Shan Refugee Organisation (SRO)

31. Sisters in Islam (SIS)

32. Srilankan Tamil Refugees Organization of Malaysia (Strom)

33. Suara Rakyat Malaysia (Suaram)

34. Tanma Federation

35. Tenaganita

36. Yemeni Refugees Union (YRU)

37. Zomi Refugee Committee (ZRC)


38. Caram Asia

39. IWRAW Asia Pacific

40. Pesticides Action Network Asia Pacific (Panap)


41. Alliance of Marriage Migrants Organizations for Rights and Empowerment (Ammore), Taiwan

42. Alstean-Burma, Bangkok

43. Frente Unido de Inmigrantes Ecuatorianos de EEUU-Canadá

44. International Migrants Alliance Europe Chapter

45. International Migrants Alliance US Chapter

46. Kalikasan, Philippines

47. Manushya Foundation, Bangkok

48. Migrante Canada

49. MIREDES, Chile

50. MIREDES International

51. National Confederation of Senegalese Workers CNTS, Senegal

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.