As a UNHCR-registered refugee from Myanmar, Khai was able to find work as a waiter in a restaurant in Penang, Malaysia. Unfortunately, he was fired after two and a half months on the job but his employer only paid him for one month.

Since Malaysia is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, they do not have a domestic or administrative framework that governs refugees and their rights. In Malaysia, refugees do not have access to fundamental rights including legal status, safe and lawful employment, formal education and equal protection of the law, and are at constant risk of arrest, detention and exploitation.

Khai came to Asylum Access Malaysia (AAM) for legal advice and provided copies of his contract and dismissal letter, which claimed that he had voluntarily resigned.

Asylum Access Malaysia (AAM) is focused on supporting to find a solution that allows refugees to live safely, move freely and work legally. They work closely with civil society and UN partners to advocate for a change in the Malaysian legal framework which prevents people from rebuilding their lives.

“Without the formal legal rights to work, refugees in Malaysia are often subjected to exploitation at the workplace. One common labour violation they face is unpaid wages,” explained Hui Ying Tham, director at Asylum Access.

AAM’s refugee legal aid program assists refugees and asylum seekers to successfully navigate the UNHCR Refugee Status Determination (RSD) process, which improves their chances of living safely and having freedom in Malaysia. On top of direct legal services, AAM offers workshops to provide basic legal and practical information to help refugees navigate the RSD process and be aware of other legal protections that may prevent detention and deportation and help them acclimatise to life in Malaysia.

However, refugees need interim and immediate protection. Thanks to the grant seed from Little Things, Asylum Access were able to develop and launch the Employment Dispute Resolution programme as a part of their interim protection services.

“The programme has directly assisted refugees by helping them secure their hard earned wages from unscrupulous employers. This reinforces the norm that refugees are people with rights regardless of their status,” said Hui.

More importantly, refugees feel more empowered to assert their rights and take action because they have recourse.

Through the programme, AAM was able to conduct outreach to potential clients, coordinate consultations between refugees and pro-bono lawyers, and then pursue avenues for addressing the refugees’ specific concerns.

Khup’s story:

Khup is a 28-year-old Chin refugee from Myanmar, is UNHCR-registered and married with one child. He worked for his employer as a cook at a restaurant in Kuala Lumpur. During the course of this work, Khup had a falling out with his employer. His employer fired him and reused to pay him last month’s salary. Khup pleaded that he needed the money to pay for his rent and to buy milk for his child, but his employer refused to give in. This resulted in Khup having to take a loan from his community members in order to pay for his needs.

Khup came to AAM and sought help. AAM sent a letter of demand through the pro-bono legal firm letterhead, requesting the month’s salary that he was owed. The employer gave in and forwarded his salary to the lawyer. Khup was very happy to receive the money and was even happier that the matter was finally settled. He can now repay his friends for the loan he took from them and is able to move forward with his life in Malaysia with dignity.

An important lesson learned was the importance in combining legal advice with practical and preventative guidance for refugee works. Many of AAM’s clients are in employment relationships where there are no formal contracts or paper trails documenting the existence of their employment. To help prevent scenarios like Khup’s from occurring in the future, AAM has added an educational component aimed at helping refugee workers protect against abuse by requesting or creating formal documentation and saving emails.

AAM is transforming the human rights landscape for refugees in Malaysia, so they can live safely, move freely, seek safe and lawful employment, send children to school, and begin to rebuild their lives.