Malaysia May Allow Burmese Refugees to Work

The Malaysian government is considering allowing its 80,000 refugees the opportunity to work while waiting to be resettled in third countries, according to a leading Malaysian news agency.

Kuala Lumpur-based The Star reported on Feb. 22 that the Malaysian Home Ministry and Ministry of Foreign Affairs are expected to discuss the issue following calls from many sectors asking the government to allow the country’s refugees––the vast majority of whom are Burmese the opportunity to work.

While noting that the refugees’ stay in the country is considered temporary, Home Minister Datuk Seri Hisham-muddin Tun Hussein said, “The suggestion might work, but we need to look at it from all angles. The implications need to be made known before we decide. My ministry can’t decide on this alone. We will engage the Foreign Ministry and probably even foreign missions as well as other relevant authorities to get their views.”

Several parties, including the Malaysian Trades Union Congress, have called on the Malaysian government to allow refugees to work, particularly in “labor-strapped sectors,” instead of importing more foreign workers.

According to The Star, the move “would help to overcome the worker shortage and, at the same time, gain Malaysia international recognition as a humane country.”

Yante Ismail, a spokesperson for the United Nations’ refugee agency, the UNHCR, in Malaysia, told The Irrawaddy on Tuesday: “The UNHCR is pleased to hear that the government of Malaysia is considering allowing refugees to work while they are here in Malaysia.

“We believe that this is in the long-term humanitarian, economic and security interest of Malaysia, and consistent with Malaysia’s own humanitarian tradition in helping those in need. We look forward to supporting the government of Malaysia in this initiative,” she said.

Oug Kar Mon, a Mon refugee, said, “There are many Burmese refugees here who don’t have enough food because they don’t dare go out to find work. The Malaysian government’s latest plan might help us to get out from under this problem.”

On Feb. 1, The New Straits Times, which is also based in the Malaysian capital, reported that Home Ministry Secretary-General Datuk Seri Mahmood Adam had announced that the government will issue identification cards to refugees registered with the UNHCR.

“I have never heard of such a large-scale plan for refugees before,” said Khaing Myo Thu, a refugee from Arakan State.

However, rights groups claim that Malaysian police have arrested and detained many Burmese refugees even though they were in possession of refugee cards from the UNHCR. In several cases, Burmese refugees have said that the authorities ripped up their ID cards in front of them before arresting them. Rights groups say that refugees are not provided enough food and water and have little living space in detention camps.

As of January, there were 79,300 refugees and asylum seekers registered with the UNHCR in Malaysia, some 90 percent of whom were Burmese––mostly Chin and Rohingya ethnic minorities.

The UNHCR said a large number of Burmese migrants, perhaps 30,000, remain unregistered in Malaysia.

The UNHCR said they will continue to push for long-term solutions for all refugees, including finding them homes in third countries and helping them return home safely.

Burmese refugees have been sent from Malaysia to third countries, including the United States, Canada, Australia, France, New Zealand, Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Norway.

The Malaysian government has cooperated with the UNHCR on humanitarian grounds since 1975 even though Malaysia has not signed the UN Convention Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees.

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