The Rio 2016 Olympics is making waves for reasons glorious and notorious, but the carnival of sport has made one unambiguously positive statement with the first ever inclusion of a team of refugees. The athletic participation of nationally displaced peoples, alongside those flag-bearing for their homelands, serves timely notice to Malaysia to consider ways that refugees can participate more broadly in our economy and society. In particular, we should open up channels for refugees to work formally and legally.
Refugees in Malaysia are officially prohibited from working, but circumstances force them to take up jobs informally, enduring risk and hardship just to earn income and support their families. The system also puts compassionate employers who employ them, or want to hire, in a bind.
Why should we legalise work for refugees? First and foremost, refugees are fellow human beings, worthy of the same dignity and deserving of basic needs. They have fled persecution, oppression, forced displacement, war, and other horrors, suffering unimaginable violations of human rights, equality and dignity. They are among the most vulnerable people in the world; it is incumbent on humanity to show compassion and extend practical assistance. Moreover, if prohibited from working formally and deprived of income, refugees will be driven to informal work, and possibly illegal, undesirable activities.
Permitting refugees to work also stands to deliver benefits to Malaysia’s economy and society. Refugee workers often take up jobs than locals shun, and in being productively employed they contribute to national income. They also tend to migrate with families and are thus likely to a substantial share of their income in the local economy. Refugees can bring skills and knowledge, add diversity, and with their relatively younger age profile, contribute a demographic dividend – they can continue to be productive for many years and across generations.
Of course, some concerns arise on the cost side – but the evidence indicates that refugee receiving countries by and large can cope. Will local workers get displaced? Evidence from the OECD countries, which have relatively more experience in extending work access to refugees, shows that such effects are usually modest in amount. Refugees’ usage of public services are also not overly burdensome; the OECD average is 0.19 per cent of GDP. In any case, public expenditures should also not be counted solely as costs. Education and health services help cultivate a more capable and dynamic refugee population.
There is vast room for improvement in the state of refugees here. Such communities are already in Malaysia, and the majority are working informally because otherwise they cannot feed their families. The total number of refugees registered with the UNHCR is roughly 151,000. Of these, about 124,000 are of working age (16-59 years). Approximately three quarters of refugee households have at least one person working or looking for work – all in informal work arrangements with no legal protection. They are located throughout Peninsular Malaysia, but concentrated in Kuala Lumpur and Selangor (just over 60 per cent of total).
Not surprisingly, a UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) survey of refugees in Malaysia found them in dire states: 64 per cent find their economic conditions have worsened since arriving in Malaysia, 72 per cent believe lack of legal status is an impediment to higher income employment, while 42 per cent of households bear debt burdens. The Rohingyas and people of other Myanmar origin groups, who constitute the vast majority of refugees, are more likely to work in dangerous, strenuous and unhealthy environments. At the same time, they widely declare a willingness to work, including in plantations.
These conditions make for a compelling case that refugees should be provided the means to formal employment, on humanitarian and national interest grounds. Refugees, already residing in Malaysia, present an able and willing workforce that can work more gainfully and productively if granted formal employment permits, and that help alleviate our persisting labour shortage problems.
Most refugees are already working, performing jobs too onerous, elementary and unattractive to Malaysians. Even if more join the workforce, the impact will be minimal. Working refugees constitute less than one percent of total employed persons in Peninsular Malaysia, and if those who are not working enter the labour force, their number touches only 3 per cent of jobs advertised on JobsMalaysia.com, the Ministry of Human Resource’s employment portal.
In terms of public provisions, the scale is similarly negligible. Malaysia does not incur expenses refugee resettlement or welfare payments. Indeed, the bulk of refugee-related budget is spent on placing them in detention facilities.
The Olympics come and go, the Rio torch will be extinguished, but the plight of refugees burns on.
All in all, there are multiple benefits and minimal costs to formally employing refugees in Malaysia. In line with the policy of hiring migrant workers who are already here and reducing the incidence of undocumented labour, it is only right, proper and opportune to channel more national attention and effort into actionable solutions for refugees.
* Lee Hwok Aun is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Development Studies, University of Malaya.
** This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online.