The UN refugee agency said on Thursday it was working with Malaysia on a pilot scheme to allow refugees from Burma’s persecuted Rohingya minority to work in the country, in a move that it described as a “win-win” solution.
Rights advocates have long urged Malaysia, which hosts some 150,000 refugees and asylum-seekers, including about 55,000 Rohingya, to extend the right of employment to the group as a way to ensure they enjoy greater protection and self-reliance.
Many refugees are trapped in a limbo in Malaysia as they are not allowed to work legally, while resettlement to a third country remains a slow process. Malaysia is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention.
Rohingya refugees in Malaysia invariably end up finding odd-jobs as cleaners or working in restaurants or on construction sites, but claims of abuses including denial of payments are widespread.
Under the pilot scheme, a group of 300 Rohingya would be allowed to work legally in the plantation and manufacturing sectors, according to Malaysian officials.
The UNHCR office in Kuala Lumpur said the trial could pave the way for a broader work scheme for refugees in Malaysia.
“A regulated scheme for refugees is a ‘win-win’ all round,” spokeswoman Yante Ismail said in a statement to the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
She said refugees could be a valuable labour source for Malaysia’s economy and that by allowing them to work legally, it would help the government to better manage the group.
“A [work] scheme would allow refugees in Malaysia to significantly improve their own protection and self-reliance thereby reducing their dependence on Malaysia for their wellbeing,” Yante added.
Malaysian authorities have said in the past they would consider allowing refugees to work but details had been sketchy. Some officials feared a relaxation of the policy would lead to an influx of migrant workers.
Malaysia’s deputy home minister told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in August that it was making a fresh push on the issue of access to work following the formation of a joint task force comprising several ministries as well as UNHCR.