Legal work rights for refugees in Malaysia is a positive step forward but they must be offered adequate protections for the scheme to succeed long-term, Gerhard Hoffstaedter writes.

Several news outlets have reported on a pilot scheme to provide work rights to 300 Rohingya refugees in Malaysia. This scheme is a cooperation between the Malaysian government and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). It has been long in the making and refugee advocates, as well as the UNHCR, have been arguing for more regularisation of refugees in Malaysia for a long time.

The announcement comes at a time of escalating violence against the Rohingya in Myanmar and reports of ethnic cleansing. The Malaysian government’s approach to the plight of the Rohingya has long been guided by the ASEAN policy of non-interference. However, last week the government demanded action from Myanmar in a public statement and summoned the Myanmar ambassador to convey their message.

Malaysia is not a signatory to the UN refugee convention or protocol and therefore does not recognise refugees legally. The UNHCR is allowed to register refugees on the understanding that the majority are to be resettled to safe third countries, such as the US, Australia, Canada and European countries. Currently, over 150,000 refugees are registered by the UNHCR with many more remaining unregistered and very vulnerable.

The UNHCR does not have sufficient means to look after so many refugees, which necessitates their employment in often dirty, dangerous and demeaning occupations. Without outside help, refugees turn to the large Malaysian shadow economy, where they find badly-paid work, are often cheated out of their wages, or worse. When accidents happen, entire families can become destitute overnight as few have health insurance or access to workers’ compensation schemes.

The Malaysian economy relies on cheap unregulated workers, mostly foreign workers, who have overstayed their visas or come to Malaysia illegally. Refugees account for a small percentage of them and are routinely swept up in immigration raids targeting undocumented workers.

Thus work rights will provide some status and regularisation to their situation in Malaysia. The government has provided large-scale work rights to their temporary guests (the Malaysian government does not use the term refugees) before. Around 70,000 Moro refugees, mostly from the southern Philippines province of Mindanao, have been given refuge in East Malaysia since the 1970s and over 30,000 Acehnese refugees were given temporary work permits in 2005. More recently, several hundred Syrian refugees have been accorded the same offer, with the government pledging to take 3,000 in total. Indeed, Rohingya themselves were previously given work permits in 1992, when small numbers were easy to accommodate.

The announcement of the pilot project is significant because the Malaysian government has previously attempted to work exclusively with refugee community organisations directly. The involvement of the UNHCR provides some hope that the government is taking a long-term view, rather than adopting ad hoc policy. The UNHCR is the only organisation that works across all refugee needs, including education, health and employment. As an organisation that has only ever been tolerated by the government (without formal relations with the Malaysian government), the UNHCR understands the difficult domestic and regional realpolitik it takes to get any sort of consensus on refugee issues.

Whether this pilot will translate into something more meaningful, such as work rights for all refugees registered with the UNHCR: better access to health services; education for the more than 30,000 children under the age of 18; and, less discrimination by authorities, remains to be seen. At present the scheme is focused on the plantation and manufacturing sectors, both hidden away from society in industrial estates and the countryside. However, the vast majority of refugees live in urban settings, where they have formed communities and refugee schools. They require legal work in the city, not least because most refugee services and the UNHCR are situated in Kuala Lumpur – central focus points for refugees and their families.

Many refugees have lost all hope in the UNHCR, the Malaysian government and themselves. To remain hopeful can be treacherous, especially in light of how the Malaysian government treats its own citizens, let alone refugees. Being able to work legally may be seen as a positive step in the right direction. Yet it is only a durable and sustainable option if refugees are given a genuine protection regime to accompany such work rights. The Malaysian government has a bad track record of providing short-term work rights without a future plan for the refugee workers and their families. The UNHCR must insist on a better deal than allowing refugees to become second-class migrant workers supplying cheap (legal) labour for Malaysia’s exporters.

Being able to work legally and with fair conditions is a right, and it should come with real protections that safeguard refugee workers from exploitation, refoulement and rent-seeking by authorities. Previous refugee registration regimes instigated by the Malaysian government ended up in confusion or disarray. For this to become a ‘win-win’ Malaysia and the UNHCR have to cooperate in creating a protection space for refugees. Refugees have already worked hard to get to Malaysia, where they work even harder just to get by. Work already defines being a refugee in Malaysia; it’s about time they were allowed to do it legally.

Gerhard Hoffstaedter is a senior research fellow (DECRA) in anthropology in the School of Social Science at the University of Queensland. He conducts research on Islam, refugees and immigration policy. He currently holds a Discovery Early Career Research Award fellowship from the Australian Research Council to produce an ethnography of the refugee experience in Malaysia.

This piece is published in partnership with Policy Forum – Asia and the Pacific’s platform for public policy analysis and debate.