MALAYSIA is currently the home of over 170,000 refugees and asylum seekers, with a large majority of them coming from Myanmar (86%) followed by refugees from Pakistan, Yemen, Syria, Somalia and Sri Lanka.
Malaysia has changed from being a transit country to a host country today, becoming the final destination for refugees.
However, even though we have been receiving them for over 70 years and seeing those unbearable images of people suffering from repression in Myanmar and Yemen, or of children being separated from their parents while trying to escape, refugees are still not accepted in this country.
When generosity and support are expected, the response is treating them like criminals in detention centres, refusing them the right to work or to live a life of dignity with education and healthcare, showing them scepticism, and being critical or even having a phobia of them.
How many times have we turned a blind eye when encountering them on the streets?
It is important to realise that, like it or not, this flow will, unfortunately, not stop considering the turn of events in Myanmar: To restore “peace and stability” and conduct a “clearance operation”, Myanmar’s government decided on June 21 to indefinitely disable the Internet in Rakhine and Chin states that are, notably, home to more than one million Rohingyas.
Refugees do not have any legal rights in Malaysia as the country has not ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention which gives minimum standards of treatment to refugees.
Thus, they are today categorised as “illegal migrants” here. This follows the path of many South-East Asian countries that have not ratified the Convention, such as Indonesia and Thailand.
This situation pushes refugees in Malaysia to work in informal jobs where the risk of exploitation is high, as well as the risk of being arrested and deported.
To remedy the situation, Pakatan Harapan announced in its election manifesto that it will provide the legal right to work to all registered refugees in Malaysia and ratify the Convention.
In fact, granting refugees in Malaysia the right to work will have a positive impact on the economy and public finances.
Most of the jobs occupied by refugees today are low-skilled jobs due to the low level of education of most refugees – in particular, the Rohingyas – but also due to the lack of access to employment opportunities.
However, many success stories seen around the world show us that giving refugees a chance to display their talents could benefit everyone and create amazing careers.
We can think of Sami Nouri, one of the rising stars of fashion design in Paris today. He fled Afghanistan and the Taliban at the age of five in 2001 to settle in Iran where he was helping his father in his small workshop. But 13 years later, the family had to flee again and Sami was separated from his parents and sister. After enduring exploitations by human traffickers, he finally arrived in France, alone and without any money or help. Being allowed to go to school he learned French and fashion and was finally spotted by famous designers.
Another incredible success story is that of Hamdi Ulukaya, a Turkish-Kurdish businessman who settled in the United States to flee oppression. He is today the owner and founder of Chobani, the bestselling strained yoghurt brand in the United States, starting with a very modest feta cheese factory, following the path taken by his father in their small village in Turkey.
He was named a World Entrepreneur of the Year in 2013 and today his net worth is US$1.7bil (RM7bil). Ulukaya employs a large number of refugees in his factories.
Unfortunately, the reality of Malaysia is the opposite. We just need a quick search on the Internet about refugees in Malaysia to read stories of communities struggling and living on the edge of the society, in the shadows and in the fear of being attacked.
Many of them have to swallow their pride and work in whatever jobs that are offered, from furniture movers to serving in restaurants for very low payment, many being short-changed on their pay.
Can you even imagine what life is like without the right to work legally?
How would they benefit our economy if they were given the right to work?
In the short-term, by 2024, the increase in the total monthly income of all refugees should reach over RM165mil. In this case, they will contribute over RM3bil to the country’s annual GDP through higher spending and boosting of domestic demand.
Their tax contribution will remain small due to low incomes and is expected to be around RM13mil each year but the expected indirect tax contribution goes up to RM40mil each year. (Figures from “Economic Impact of Granting Refugees in Malaysia the Right to Work” by the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs; on line at bit.ly/refugeework.)
The overall impact of granting refugees the right to work is positive both on the financial and labour markets.
Indeed, according to the World Bank, migrant workers complement the majority of Malaysian workers and do not replace them. Thus, this measure would create between 2,500 and 4,300 jobs for Malaysians nationwide.
Refugees should therefore not be seen as a threat to domestic labour and should be distinguished from illegal immigrants.
Finally, it would reduce costs for businesses to hire refugees over foreign workers who generate high costs of migration (recruitment costs, foreign workers levy, medical check-ups, immigration fees, etc).
Ultimately, granting refugees the right to work would definitely be positive for the economy. But more than the economy and public finances, it would reveal that we are still a part of humanity.
The government should take steps to implement its manifesto commitments. The political will of leaders and Malaysians is more than needed in this crisis of solidarity. Malaysia Baharu needs to do better.
Note: The writer was a research assistant at the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (Ideas)