KUALA LUMPUR: UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) representative for Malaysia Richard Towle has called on the government to give refugees the right to work in the country, saying it would “make a huge difference” in their lives.
“We will be very happy if the government would agree to provide some form of legal documentation to allow the Chins who are already working here the right to work legally,” said Towle at the Refugees No More screening and town hall session yesterday.
Also present at the event organised by The Star’s R.AGE team to discuss the issues faced by the Chin refugee community in Malaysia were Alliance of Chin Refugees chairman Mung Khat, Refuge For The Refugees founder and director Heidy Quah, and Immigration director of operation (enforcement) Saravana Kumar Marimuthu.
Others included ethnic Chins and human rights activists.
The Chin community stands to lose its UNHCR protection by the end of 2019 when they will no longer have refugee status.
During the event, activists and Chins took the opportunity to share the difficulties faced by the community due to the impending ending of refugee protection by UNHCR on Dec 31, 2019.
Some members of the community claimed they had faced issues renewing their UNHCR identity cards, losing what little protection they had in Malaysia.
Many refugees transit in Malaysia for a period of time – sometimes years – while UNHCR works to resettle them in countries like the United States or Australia. But in recent years, this had become increasingly difficult, said Towle.
“There has been a tremendous amount of work that’s gone into finding durable solutions. The problem is that the world is changing.
“The available solutions we had and enjoyed for years are no longer there. Globally, we have 30,000 resettlement places in the United States coming up. In the past, we enjoyed 80,000 to 100,000 places.
“The possibility of being resettled has almost disappeared.”
The ending of the Chins’ refugee protection means they would have only two options aside from resettlement – stay in Malaysia as undocumented migrants or return to Myanmar.
Towle reiterated UNHCR’s stand that Chins would no longer be eligible for refugee protection under UNHCR beyond 2019.
He said UNHCR’s assessments based on reports and site visits showed that Chin state was now safe for them to return to, but the Chins were unconvinced.
“There is still a civil war back home, even until today,” claimed Mung Khat.
“If our government issues a document that says we have amnesty and can go back home, we will go home. But for now, it still isn’t safe.”
Saravana assured the refugees that Malaysia would not send refugees back “by force”.
“We engage with UNHCR and the International Organisation for Migration on how best to resettle refugees in third countries, or repatriate them back to their home countries,” he said.
He also referred to the Pakatan Harapan’s election manifesto, which has pledged to legitimise refugees’ status, thus ensuring their legal right to work.
“I am as excited as all of you to see what changes the new government has in place,” he said.
“But the Prime Minister has said that the government needs time to make changes in laws and regulations.”
Towle was also hopeful about the government’s promise to help refugees.
“We’ve been in talks with the Malaysian government to see if there’s a way for refugees and asylum seekers to live here legally,” he said.
“We’ve had some progress – the new government has indicated that it would allow people of concern to UNHCR to live and work here.
“A government card and government registration would make a huge difference in quality of life and access to education.”
While the government has already implemented a MyRC identification programme for refugees and asylum seekers, MyRC cards are “for law enforcement purposes only, and doesn’t give refugees the right to work”, said Towle.
However, the Chins are still concerned about what will happen to them now, especially for those whose refugee status is withdrawn before UNHCR reaches an agreement with the government.
“While we are working with UNHCR and the Malaysian government to find a better solution, we need to be identified (as refugees),” said Mung Khat.
“The card allows us to have the three S’s that are important to refugees while searching for a workable solution: Safety, security and a place to stay.
“Please don’t take our cards away.”
Find out more about the Refugees No More project by R.AGE at rage.my/refugeesnomore.