Opportunities for Refugee Access to Work in Malaysia Puteri Nor Ariane Yasmin

Puteri Nor Ariane Yasmin

Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia, Policy Brief Issue #1-19, August 2019



As of April 2019, there were over 170,000 registered refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia, in addition to an estimated 100,000 unregistered refugees in the country. This policy brief makes the case that formalizing a work program for refugees not only grants them greater security, but also has positive impacts for the host country.

Key arguments:

  • Integrating refugees into the formal labor market would have a positive impact on the economy and national productivity. Malaysia is a net importer of labor; refugees could meet the demand for low-cost labor without affecting jobs for locals. Self-reliant refugees could cover the cost of their own healthcare and education, pay taxes and increase domestic spending.
  • Large numbers of refugees already live and work informally in Malaysia, particularly the Rohingya. Formalizing employment for refugees would permit authorities to know who is doing what in their territory, and exercise control over the labor force and labor standards.
  • Malaysian authorities remain concerned about creating incentives for further refugees to enter the country, and the cost of providing services to refugees. These concerns could be addressed by extending work opportunities only to individuals who are accorded refugee status by UNHCR, by limiting the program to refugees who arrived before a certain date, or by clarifying that work opportunities are not a pathway to naturalization.
  • Work programs for refugees would need to provide them with labor rights under domestic law and the flexibility to meet their needs, otherwise many would continue to choose to work informally.
  • There are opportunities for regional cooperation via the Bali Process and the ASEAN Responsible Business Forum (ARBF).