COMMENT | In 2000, the United Nations general assembly's Resolution 55 /76, decided that from 2001, June 20 would be dedicated to drawing the public’s attention to the millions of people worldwide, forced to flee conflict and persecution.
This annual celebration of the human spirit of persistence and endurance is something, that this year on account of the 14th general election, the majority of Malaysians can relate to.
As a result of the recent change of government, the country is, as we speak, being purged of its philandering public officials, but is still sadly burdened with a staggering debt of RM1 trillion. That’s one thousand times, a billion ringgit.
The nation is rallying together to alleviate this debt through public donations, and has done wonderfully achieving RM75 million in less than a month. The government too is seeking to cut expenses, prevent further haemorrhaging and attract legitimate investments.
There remain no legal mechanisms authorising the protection of asylum seekers and refugees. For all matters related to immigration, we still purport to rely only on the structure of the 50-year-old Immigration Act and regulations, which was clearly made for a different Malaysia.
This law prescribes the procedure for entry and deportation and provides for basic employment passes (for temporary migrant workers) and student passes with a strong focus on health screening. In essence, Malaysia’s broader immigration policy is one that is premised on security.
Like many other developed countries, Malaysia seeks to inhibit the breeding of terrorism and social conflict, while ensuring that the needs of the local workforce are not compromised by those of immigrant workers.
Policy-making on the subject of humanitarian protection is undoubtedly a complex social project, that ought to have benefited from the parliamentary and public debate that usually accompanies the introduction of legislation for that specific purpose.
However, public scrutiny was systematically evaded when these important decisions were assumed to fall within the ambit of executive decision-making from as far back as the 1970s, after the fall of Saigon. Albeit questionably, the executive has on numerous occasion made decisions to host refugees from specified countries.
According to the UNHCR, in 2017 there were 239,000 refugees and persons of concern in Malaysia. UNHCR carries out the administration of their registration and resettlement based on international law and the pledges of receiving states, but in accordance with international law, only a state is competent to grant protection.
Pending registration and resettlement – which can take years or even decades - the economic contribution refugees make to the nation, remains hidden in the billion-dollar underworld.
Money is paid to so-called "agents' to both facilitate entry into the country or acquire purportedly legal documents. It’s also paid to law enforcement officials, happy to pervert the course of justice and look the other way in cases of wrongly assumed or actual, law infringement.
If refugees do secure work, the work remains under the formal radar, thereby depriving the government of the legitimate revenue it might receive, in the form of taxes or savings. Similarly, if children and young persons do go to school, it is informal and they are ineligible to take government examinations. This excludes them from the workforce, perpetuating the cycle of poverty creating push factors to opt for a life of crime.
As more post-election information surfaces, the public has seen how the former BN government was enthusiastic about projects that assisted its cronies to line their pockets. On the whole, the management of migrant labour has been a short-sighted and inefficient bureaucratic nightmare.
The recruitment of migrant labour has been exposed as rife with the grant of inflated infrastructure and service provision contracts to crony companies. There are other awards to a company for voluntary returns and re-employment. These ad-hoc decisions by the former home minister are not only devoid of legal basis, they continue to haemorrhage, to third parties, the significant revenue which rightfully belongs to the government, and hence the public purse.
Benefits of immigration reform to economic growth
A change in policy is more likely to give the government an accurate capacity to understand who is in the country and facilitate more efficient responses to problems that arise, rather than operate as pull-factor for irregular migration.
By issuing periodically renewable immigration passes permitting work, small business and study in public schools for children, on condition of their purchasing health services, refugees and asylum seekers will have the capacity to contribute to the economic development of the nation while also enjoying better living conditions.
Aside from the growth of the labour market, for example, the absence of policies supportive of immigrant communities has also left our education sector behind. Teaching immigrant children and facilitating adult education to enable them to adapt to local business needs and cultures is undoubtedly a viable commercial venture, but the risk of prosecution for immigration offences has been a hindrance.
The introduction of such policy therefore also has the capacity to draw investments from the international education sector. These changes mean jobs for locals too. Finally, an initiative of this scale would potentially translate to meeting all of the eight United Nations millennium development goals for this clearly excluded community.
In conclusion, it should be noted that like everyone else, refugees and other persons of concern to UNHCR, do not want Malaysia’s charity. Rather, they want the right to live in dignity pending repatriation or resettlement.
The formalisation of Malaysia’s humanitarian protection policy through legislation, will necessarily enhance the economic development.
Despite not being a signatory to the Refugee Convention and Protocol, Malaysia would be participating with greater integrity in the international community while demonstrating its commitment to the rule of law.
RENUKA T BALASUBRAMANIAM is a Malaysian lawyer and PhD candidate at the Melbourne Law School.
The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.