When refugees flee, they bring with them only the most essential items or even nothing at all. They were saving their lives and prioritized to survive, so legal documents or any kind of documents seem irrelevant. But after they arrive in the ‘safe’ zone or another country, they face a long and unpredictable future of being estranged and scraping for their primary needs like food and water.
Like everyone else, refugees need to support their livelihoods. But it is more challenging for them, given that they have lost all of their assets when they left their home country, they have no legal right to work and they have to survive for an unknown time frame.
With no work right, they can’t access proper healthcare and education. Even when they have been granted a work right, the local companies are less likely to recruit a refugee because of linguistic barriers, their status as ‘refugee’ and sometimes downright discrimination.
Some Southeast Asian countries hold a large number of refugees. Indonesia has been stable in number since 2015 at around 14,000 individuals, Malaysia is 170,000 and Thailand’s 110,000 individuals.
Holding the largest number of refugees in the region, Malaysia’s newly elected government has pledged to ratify the international refugee convention and grant refugees’ right to work in the country. However, until now it remains a pledge.
Ratifying the refugee convention is still extremely difficult for the government as it recently faced a political backlash from its opposition forces when it moved to ratify the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.
Nevertheless, working rights would be beneficial for both the host country and of course, the refugees. If refugees earn a decent wage, they can send their children to schools or learning centres. The children are then protected from being forced to work illegally or exploited. Besides, by working the refugees can contribute to the host community and country instead of being passive members of society. It will also help to erase the stereotype of refugees being a burden to their host country.
Calculated, if the Malaysian government grant the right to work for refugees, they can possibly contribute to approximately 3 billion ringgit (about US$724 million) to Malaysia’s GDP by 2024 with around 50 million ringgit of tax revenue.
Granting refugees the right to work is not the ultimate solution to their unique situation. It is the first significant step that can be done immediately, which can be beneficial for Malaysia in the short and long term.
For the time being, refugees are trying to be independent by utilizing their skills. There are also organisations who help them to develop certain skills and distribute their works or products. One of them is Artbox, an organisation started by refugees in Malaysia whose aim is to utilize fellow refugees’ art skills to support their livelihoods. Read more about their story here and check out their latest artwork and activities here.