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August 8, 2011

Controversial refugee swap deal has implications for refugees’ right to work in Malaysia

by Asylum Access

Last week, Australia and Malaysia signed a controversial agreement that allows Australia to send 800 asylum seekers to Malaysia. In return, Australia will take 4,000 refugees from Malaysia over the next four years. The agreement, which is atypical, has been criticized for failing protection standards for refugees.

One of the main concerns critics have raised over the Australia-Malaysia refugee swap deal has been the large gap between rights refugees can enjoy Australia (access to health, education, eligibility for lawful employment once recognized) and Malaysia (detention, exploitation and caning). What – critics ask – are the prospects for the 800 asylum-seekers being sent to Malaysia?

A partial answer came on the eve of the official signing of the agreement: On July 24, the Sidney Morning Herald reported Kuala Lumpur has promised that asylum- seekers sent to Malaysia will be granted the right to work and will be treated as legal migrants pending resettlement processing.  Reportedly, UNHCR highlighted that work rights for these refugees is the key to allow them to support themselves, given that these refugees won’t live in detention facilities.

The move represents both a mild progress for the recognition of refugees’ rights to work and a challenge due to inconsistent treatment of refugees in Malaysia:

  • On the one hand, this effectively creates a two-tiered system:  An estimated 95,000 refugees are treated as illegal immigrants in Malaysia, living devoid of rights, at constant risk of detention and corporal punishment, without access to education, schools or protection from exploitation.  In the meantime, the 800 asylum seekers coming from Australia will ostensibly have  freedom of movement, the right to work, the ability to put their children in school, and access to justice if exploited, mistreated or detained.
  • On the other hand, giving employment rights to (at least some) refugees is a large leap in Malaysian refugee policy.  There is potential that respecting the right to work for this small group of refugees will demonstrate that the sky won’t fall if refugees have the right to work legally. Refugees who can work can become self-reliant much faster than if they depend on humanitarian aid, can support the growing economy, and – given the right tools– become entrepreneurs.

In a move the Malaysian human rights commission has said is unrelated to the refugee swap deal, Malaysia will begin a program to fingerprint all foreign workers in the country. Extending the biometric scheme to refugees could open the door for refugees to gain a work permit if they can afford the fee. This is a rare glimmer of hope for the recognition of refugees’ right to work in the region.

Michelle Arevalo-Carpenter,  Overseas Operations Director, Asylum Access

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