Today — June 20 — is World Refugee Day. It is a time for us all to join in solidarity with the millions of refugees around the world who have been forced from the security of their homes by war and persecution. It is also a time to acknowledge their courage and resilience in the face of appalling challenges and insecurity. Over 65 million people worldwide have been forced to flee their homes — the highest number since the end of the Second World War. One in every 113 humans — or more than twice the population of Malaysia — is affected by conflict or serious human insecurity. In an increasingly globalised and interconnected world, no country is unaffected by this human tragedy.
Malaysia, like other countries in the region, has been host to thousands of refugees over the past 50 years. Many people fleeing the Indochinese conflicts of the 1970s and 1980s found sanctuary and safety in Malaysia whilst the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the international community looked for more durable solutions for them, usually by resettlement to other countries. And today, although Malaysia has not signed the 1951 Refugee Convention, more than 150,000 asylum seekers and refugees — mostly from Myanmar — are seeking the protection of UNHCR in this country. Refugees in Malaysia have no legal status and are considered, by law, to be illegal migrants. This means that they have no lawful means to earn a living or to support themselves and their families. Their children are not permitted into the national school system and they face daily challenges in securing accessible and affordable healthcare.
Many are forced into the informal market economy where they face discrimination and exploitation. This deepens the profound sense of insecurity and dislocation that accompanies their forced displacement. It also prevents them from making a meaningful contribution to Malaysia during their stay in exile. In confronting these challenges, Malaysia has a unique opportunity to look at solutions for refugees that have not been available in the past few decades. The changing situation in Myanmar means that many refugees from that country can start to contemplate a more positive future in their home country. With UNHCR’s support, countries in the region can better support some refugee communities as they consider the gradual transition from a life in exile to a future at home. Other refugee communities, for whom no immediate solution is in sight, need better protection and assistance, particularly those who are most vulnerable. Separated or unaccompanied refugee children, women and girls and the victims of trafficking or sexual abuse and violence need our special care and support. They ought not be excluded from our sympathy and care simply because of their “unlawful migration” status. UNHCR believes that a new compact of solidarity and support can be built for refugees in Malaysia and in the region. A compact that would allow vulnerable refugees to live and work lawfully in Malaysia would have three important and very positive effects.
FIRST, 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. A government-administered registration system, working closely with UNHCR, would provide important biometric data, and verifiable identity documentation, as to who is in Malaysia. Enrolling refugees in a legal work scheme would bring them out of the shadows of the informal economy into a national data management system that can track their identities, location, and activities. This would also extricate refugees from the exploitation of smugglers and traffickers and the criminal market. SECOND, registered refugees, who could work lawfully, would provide a ready source of willing and reliable labour to support the Malaysian economy and increase national productivity.
The World Bank has shown in its 2015 Malaysia Economic Monitor, that legalised refugee workers would lead to the creation of more jobs in Malaysia, increased wages for Malaysians, and increased Gross Domestic Product. UNHCR estimates that monetary contributions generated by a legalised refugee workforce could amount to RM152 million in annual revenue for Malaysia, based on the same levy rates as legal foreign workers. This means that the cost of hosting refugees in Malaysia would be more than offset by their positive contributions. THIRD, a scheme to allow refugees to live and work legally in Malaysia would be transformational in improving their protection and dignity, particularly for vulnerable women and children.
Greater self-sufficiency among refugee communities would lead to better health and education and a significantly reduced burden on the host state. At the same time, it would provide a stronger basis for refugees to contemplate their future options, including returning to their home countries with transferable skills to start their new lives. UNHCR is convinced that this new approach would present a compact for closer cooperation with the government. It is a win-win for the people of Malaysia, for its security and economy, and for refugees who live here temporarily. On World Refugee Day 2016, we must all stand together #WithRefugees in solidarity with some of the world’s most vulnerable people. UNHCR is grateful for Malaysia’s solidarity #WithRefugees, on this important day. Richard Towle is UNHCR Representative to Malaysia
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