Clearing the air on refugees

  • Letters
  • Wednesday, 10 Jul 2019

WE are both academic researchers who work closely with the refugee community in Malaysia and are deeply concerned over the misleading arguments in the letter “Careful with right to work” (The Star, June 25) by Pola Singh (online at

In our work, we routinely encounter individuals with these misconceptions and would like to present some facts to clear the air surrounding some of the issues highlighted by the writer.

The first thing to realise is that refugees are not economic migrants. This is something that we often hear, but it is false. Refugees flee their country to escape war or persecution. It is not about income progression or the job opportunities in Malaysia. It is about life and death – they simply had no choice but to leave.

We have met refugees whose homes in Syria were bombed in front of their eyes, whose babies died in fires caused by military forces in Myanmar, or whose families were violently killed in Somalia. Despite all of these horrible things that have happened to them, in our field work with refugees which has spanned two years, we have not met a single individual who told us that they would have chosen to leave their homes if they had the choice to stay.

Granting them legal right to work means helping them survive in a country of asylum (i.e. Malaysia). It is not about improving their income progression.

We would also like to refute the claim that with legal work rights, refugees might “resort to crime and other vices or go underground to make ends meet.” This is actually one of the main reasons for legalising refugees – to avoid these problems. Currently, many refugees either work underground doing dirty, dangerous and demeaning jobs outside the purview of the law, or do odd jobs for Malaysians in order to make ends meet. They are often cheated by their employers, with salaries withheld or not paid for months, and do not enjoy safe workplaces.

With terrible job prospects and limited economic opportunities, some refugees may become desperate and resort to alternatives such as begging on street intersections. We’re not aware of many instances of crimes committed by refugees, but to the extent that they do exist, it speaks of their dire circumstances. Giving refugees the right to work and, hence, a stable source of income will not encourage crime but instead prevent it.

To address the concern regarding employers having to pay bribes to authorities to cut ahead of the queue to gain access to foreign workers, we’d like to stress that this has nothing to do with granting work rights to refugees but rather about how the policy is implemented. Furthermore, a fact that is not widely known is how few refugees there are relative to the number of migrant workers in this country.

According to official data from the Immigration Department, Department of Statistics Malaysia and Khazanah Research Institute, there were approximately six million migrant workers in Malaysia in 2018. In contrast, there are only about 170,000 registered refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia.

Another way to express this would be to say that refugees constitute less than 3% of the entire foreign worker population in Malaysia. Realistically, this means that any policies concerning the legalisation of refugees would have very little real impact on the current foreign labour situation. In fact, a policy that changes the number of work permits for foreign labour by 5% would have more impact than legalising all the refugees in this country.

Furthermore, Malaysian history shows that concerns about refugees marrying locals and becoming permanent residents are unfounded. Malaysia is a country whose history is filled with stories of “outsiders” falling in love with locals, marrying them, making this country their home, and creating new hybrid communities such as the Peranakan in Penang and Melaka. Why is this any different for refugees?

As we elaborate in our next point, a big part of becoming a developed country is increased exposure to the “outside” – opening not only our minds but also hearts to the unknown. This includes embracing the differences in other individuals, cultures and countries. If love happens in this process, far from it for us to say it is unjust!

In fact, one of Malaysia’s biggest strengths in international business is how multicultural we are – that individuals from all around the world can come here and blend in fairly easily. The level of diversity in this country is an advantage, not a weakness.

Lastly, we would like to rebut the claim that it is important to deny refugee the legal rights to work for the sake of Malaysian economic development and vision towards becoming a developed country. Many of the world’s richest and most developed countries rely heavily on foreign labour to function. Some clear examples are the United States, Singapore and the Gulf States. There are no causal links between reliance on foreign labour, be it refugee or non-refugee labour, and a country’s economic growth and prosperity.

Finally, we’d like to point out that not all refugees in Malaysia are low skilled. In our field work with the refugee community, we have met tremendously talented individuals – nurses, professional chefs, craftsmen and women, engineers, former executives of companies, artists and many more. We’ve even met individuals who speak Bahasa Malaysia so well (some even with a Kelantanese accent), it would put us to shame!

Aside from all the economic reasons for granting refugees the legal right to work, the most compelling reason, to us, is humanitarian. To every person reading this who objects to granting legal work rights for refugees, our questions to you are: “Have you ever met a refugee family? Have you ever entered their homes, had a conversation with them, shared a meal with them, or watched as they lovingly tend to their children?”

We have had this privilege on many occasions and truly believe that if you have, you wouldn’t speak of these individuals – these human beings – as mere numbers and blips on a graph. They are people with needs like you and us who have been dealt a terrible hand in life. We guarantee that if you get to know a refugee personally, you would not deny them the right to work and make a living in this country for themselves and their loved ones.


Shah Alam

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