Thursday, February 25, 2010

We should let refugees work

I’M sure it was not only my friends and I who applauded the Malaysian Trades Union Congress (MTUC) call to the government to allow refugees to work legally in our country instead of bringing in more foreign labour from our neighbours.
The MTUC’s call comes fast on the heels of the recent announcement that 100,000 new visas were approved for foreign workers in the last three months.
"It’s definitely something good," a friend said as a friendly Myanmar worker served us drinks at the stalls. The irony was not lost on me, as I looked around our surroundings, with the many refugees trying to scrape some money by doing whatever they can, however they can. Needlessly, my friend added, "Then people like the workers here can work here legally."
Again, I’m not the only one who thinks that it is truly incredible that we are importing even more foreign workers when there seems to be a glut of them in our nation, and that we have, according to Suaram statistics, 60,000 Myanmar refugees registered with UNHCR, and thousands more are unregistered. For all we know, if all of them were registered, there would be no need to bring in the 100,000 foreign workers.
MTUC secretary-general G. Rajasekaran observed that if the government allowed refugees to work legally, we would save millions of ringgit in sustaining them. I might add that in so doing, the government would be able to monitor the refugee situation in our country, as well as control the influx of legally-brought-in foreign labour. According to reports, the latest figures from the Home Ministry reveal 1.2 million legal foreign workers with an equal number of illegal or undocumented workers in Malaysia.
Interestingly, Rajasekaran added that by allowing refugees to work, Malaysia would "also gain world recognition for being a humane country."
And this is the thing – I know Malaysians are compassionate people. Then why, according to Suaram, has the following occurred?
Between 2002 and 2008, more than 4,800 Myanmars were whipped for immigration offences; in 2008, 812 Myanmar children were detained in immigration detention centres; Myanmar refugees have difficulty finding jobs, due to their status. If they do get work, they are "usually underpaid and vulnerable to abuse from unscrupulous employers"; generations of uneducated refugees are being raised in Malaysia as they do not have access to education; and due to their unrecognised status, refugees live in fear of raids, arrest and detention.
According to Amnesty International Malaysia, Malaysia does not recognise refugees and asylum seekers, and "excludes validity of documents granted by the UNHCR that accord such people with International Protection."
However, according to Amnesty, we are formally obliged to care for refugee children, as we are signatories to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the UN Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. According to Article 22 of the CRC, the government should proactively provide assistance and protection to children of asylum seekers and refugees.
And that leaves the men. Why not give some form of protection to the husbands, fathers, grandfathers, brothers and sons of the women and children? Why not let them work? After all, we have 100,000 vacancies at the moment, as evidenced by the approval of 100,000 work visas for foreigners.
It is great news that the Home Ministry intends to issue identification cards to refugees recognised by the United Nations. Why not show the world that we are in solidarity with the sufferings of our neighbours and just go the extra mile? Let’s give them the right to work.
Daniel freelances in writing and publishing, and has a deep passion for sleeping, eating and labour law. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com