New policy to allow refugees to work in formal sectors possible soon

24 Feb 2022 09:11am
A Myanmar ethnic Rohingya refugee sorting out metal items to recycle in Kuala Lumpur. - AFP
A Myanmar ethnic Rohingya refugee sorting out metal items to recycle in Kuala Lumpur. - AFP

KUALA LUMPUR - Mohammad Ali Hanifa, 35, almost died when Myanmar soldiers shot at him and his family members in 2010. But he has never felt more desperate than he is now when he thinks about his pregnant wife.

"Every day, I think, I worry,” he said in halting Malay.

On his right bicep, an ugly dark spider-like scar stood testament to his ordeal.

A Myanmar Muslim, he fled sectarian violence in the southeastern part of the country after soldiers killed his brother and three cousins.

He was shot in the arm and survived.

Soon after, he made his way to Malaysia with his wife. Several charities helped pay for the hospital costs when his wife delivered their first child.

Now, she is pregnant with their second child and he has no idea how he is going to pay for his wife’s pre- and postnatal care, the baby’s birth, his elder child’s education at the Pelangi Kasih Learning Centre in Selayang, Selangor, and keep a roof over their heads.

So far, his wife has not been able to see a doctor.

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He told Bernama he has been trying to earn as much money as possible doing odd jobs and working at a restaurant.

"I can do the difficult jobs (and) wash dishes, everything,” he said.

Although United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) cardholders get a 50 percent discount for public healthcare services, there is little else the agency can do for him.

And earning a daily wage rate of RM60 to RM70, what he can save will barely be enough for an uneventful hospital stay.

The deposit payment for medical care at a public hospital for a non-citizen ranges from RM3,000 to RM5,000, for example. Mohammad Ali said he would be able to afford it if he had a stable job and income.

As a refugee, Mohammad Ali is not allowed to work officially as Malaysia is not signatory to the UN 1951 Refugee Convention and does not officially recognise refugees, causing them to be regarded as undocumented migrants.

However, it is Malaysia’s policy not to deport UNHCR cardholders while they wait for a third country to take them.

The shadowy Directive 23 of the National Security Council also purportedly provides UNHCR cardholders some leeway, allowing them to take up lowly paid low-skill jobs to support themselves.

This teetering between legality and illegality leaves refugees in limbo, relatively confident they will not be deported for being in Malaysia but fearful they may be detained for working illegally.

It also leaves them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse by unscrupulous employers and individuals.

For years, activists and lawmakers have called for refugees to be allowed to work legally.

In the previous Pakatan Harapan government, a bipartisan group of Parliamentarians was working on a new policy to regulate legal employment for refugees.

One possible way is to allow refugees to register and work as foreign workers, using existing laws governing foreign workers albeit with some differences.

With the change in government in March 2020, the group’s work continued under the new leadership.

Should it come to pass, Mohammad Ali would likely be able to earn the money to pay hospital costs for his wife and newborn, and education for his firstborn.


At the end of 2021, UNHCR reported that 180,440 refugees had registered with them, most of whom were from Myanmar.

Out of 155,440 refugees from Myanmar, 103,380 were Rohingyas and 22,570 Chin.

The rest comprise other ethnic groups from the country. Other refugees in Malaysia include those from Pakistan, Yemen and Syria. Over 46,000 refugees are children.

Asked to comment on the proposed policy to regulate legal employment for refugees, former chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group Malaysia (APPGM) on Refugees Chan Ming Kai told Bernama he could only discuss his group’s report, which was going to suggest allowing refugees to either use their UNHCR cards or another document to be determined later as their identifying documents when applying for their work permits.

"It’s possible the government is going to legalise their working rights similar to or exactly the same as the foreign worker, which is they can only work in specific sectors and follow all these conditions with the same amount of levy - everything,” he said.

He added that he could not guarantee the current government would approve his group’s recommendations, but that the group was continuing to work on the issue.

A member of the current APPGM on Refugees Natrah Ismail, who is the MP for Sekijang, told Bernama that she supported Chan’s findings, saying legalising refugees meant employers would be able to find the workers to do undesirable but necessary jobs, by utilising a ready and willing labour force already present in Malaysia.

For example, many refugees work as cleaners at wet markets, jobs that Malaysians are usually not willing to do without getting salaries that are several times above the minimum wage.

She added that if Malaysians were paid a wage commensurate with the amount of labour foreign workers and refugees usually put out - "toiling under the hot sun and soaking in heavy rain” - the country would not need foreign workers, she said via WhatsApp.

Chan cautioned that should the government decide to allow refugees to work, his group’s analysis found refugees and foreign workers were not necessarily interchangeable, as evinced by the 2016 pilot project.

The results of the experiment, which involved employing Rohingya refugees in the plantation and manufacturing sectors, were mixed, with the plantation sector initiative considered a failure and the manufacturing sector initiative a resounding success.

Activists said this was because refugees were not keen on relocating or separating from their families and taking up jobs in the plantation sector. Refugees instead preferred jobs that would not take them away from their families and communities.

Mercy Malaysia president Datuk Dr Ahmad Faizal Mohd Perdaus said unlike foreign workers who come to Malaysia in search of better jobs and pay, most of the refugees are here with their families fleeing persecution, violence and death in their home country. As such, their communities tend to be in urban areas.

"And so if they are in downtown KL or JB or Seremban, it is actually an issue for them to then relocate to a plantation a few hundred miles away, in another state.

Whereas it may not be such a big problem for a documented foreign worker from Indonesia, for example, coming here with the sole objective of working at plantations,” he said.

Foreign workers also usually have some basic education and may have been brought in because they have experience working in certain sectors, such as plantations, while refugees in Malaysia are from all sorts of backgrounds - some are educated white-collar professionals while others have little education, such as the Rohingyas.

Chan, who is also the MP for Alor Setar, said if the new policy comes into effect, it should reflect the differences.

He also said the government should continue to allow refugees to work in the informal sector.

One of the things the new policy should recognise is the fact that many refugees may not be able to comply immediately with the requirements for foreign workers.

"So we suggest legalising ... so they can enjoy benefits as legal workers but at the same time we still should allow them, at least in the next few years, to continue as informal workers because we won’t know what impact (the policy would have on) them given the current market situation,” he said.

He also acknowledged there are some sovereignty issues that still need to be ironed out.

Allowing the use of a UNHCR card as an identifying document meant Malaysia was allowing another body, that is the UN refugee agency, to be involved in Malaysia’s immigration matters.

As such, he said the government and the UNHCR may need to collaborate and share data to determine whether the refugee should get a work permit.

Home Minister Datuk Seri Hamzah Zainudin has previously said Malaysia needed its own data on refugees.

Bernama reached out to the UNHCR but could not get a response.


Barring sovereignty issues, there is also the matter of public opinion, which is not very favourable towards Rohingyas specifically, if not refugees in general.

Many activists and lawmakers are concerned over any backlash from the Malaysian public, many of whom are still struggling to recover from Covid-19 job and income losses, should refugees be allowed to officially work.

Human Aid Selangor Society (HASS) vice president Badariah Abdul Hamid said allowing refugees to work will likely invite more negative feedback.

"Many have commented on Facebook, why bother with helping refugees? Many Malaysians are suffering now,” she said. Her charity runs the Pelangi Kasih Learning Centre and assists Rohingya refugees.

Nevertheless, she and other activists, economists and lawmakers agreed allowing refugees to work legally is a win-win situation for Malaysia and refugees.

Chan said legalising refugees’ work status would help the stagnation of wages that many Malaysians have blamed on the ready availability of low-cost workers.

"Our argument is that, like it or not, they are already working right now. If (we do) not legalise then basically, they take a lower salary, far lower than the minimum salary, which will create another unbalanced competition with the locals.

More employers prefer to take refugees (as workers) because they appear to be cheaper, and it would not be fair and healthy competition with the local citizens,” he said.

According to The World Bank’s 2015 Malaysia Economic Monitor, legalising workers will contribute positively to the economy.

It found documented workers in Malaysia raise employment and wages of Malaysians, while the levies employers pay for workers contribute to government revenues.

And, their participation in the government’s worker insurance scheme reduces the healthcare burden on the government.

UNHCR estimated a legalised refugee workforce would contribute about RM152 million in annual revenue, based on levy rates for foreign workers in Malaysia.

In an editorial for the 2016 International Refugee Day, deputy director of UNHCR in New York Richard Towle wrote in support of Malaysia’s pilot project, saying "a regulated scheme for refugees, that includes the opportunity to work lawfully, would address the legitimate concerns of the government concerning security, law and order, and criminality that currently pervades parts of the unregulated labour market economy”.

He also said the skills refugees would gain and be able to pay for once they are registered as legal workers would help resettlement.

Experts agree providing refugees legal means to earn a living would help improve national security and law and order.

Refugees and employers would no longer have to hide when encountering law enforcement officials, reducing the amount of wage theft and other abuses, and making them less vulnerable to criminality.

They would also be able to afford to buy more, which will help the economy, and pay for their children’s education, which helps everyone.

Dr Ahmad Faizal told Bernama one other benefit that comes with allowing refugees to legally work is that it will help reduce radicalism.

"The more neglected people are, the less hope they have in this life, in this world... and the more likely they are to be drawn to radical (and) extreme ideology,” he said. - BERNAMA