On the 29th of April, the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilisation (ISTAC), with support from the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS), held an international forum titled “Global Refugee Challenges: Multidimensional Perspective”. The forum sought to discuss the challenges of refugees by looking into different dimensions of problems such as the right to work for refugees.
Distinguished Professor Dr Osman Bakar of ISTAC began the evening with an opening speech, then allowing YB Dato’ Saifuddin Nasution to take the stage with an impassionate, bold speech expressing his pro-refugee stance. In his speech, YB Saifuddin focused on the necessity of new development strategies to solve refugee crises and the importance of introducing preventive and mitigative steps for the refugee crisis. He vehemently expressed the need to need with refugees as humans, and in his own words, “not with crass nationalism”.
The highlight of the forum was a panel discussion with YB Nurul Izzah Anwar, Member of Parliament, Mehmet Simsek, former Deputy Prime Minister of Turkey and Hamdi Ulukaya, CEO of Chobani and founder of Tent Partnership for Refugees USA, with the panel moderated by Deborah Priya Henry. The panel looked into the challenges of refugees from different perspectives and shared their opinions. When asked what she thought was the biggest challenge to refugees in Malaysia, YB Nurul’s belief was that Malaysia was still grappling in terms of clear cut long term solutions and how to ensure that Malaysians were more sensitive to the plight of refugees. Sir Mehmet Simsek shared some insight behind the key decisions he made to tackle the influx of refugees during the conflict in Syria. From his knowledge, he understood that as a fact refugees tended to stay 19-20 years in their host country. Under his leadership Turkey took advantage of this situation by providing mandatory education for the children of refugees, allowing them access to the Turkish healthcare system and granting refugees work permits; he estimated that total amount of funding invested in these refugees totalled up to $37 billion dollars. He acknowledged that what he saw as a “great investment in global peace” wouldn’t have gone as smooth without the support of the Erdogan administration and the Turkish people’s empath for the plight of refugees. Mr. Hamdi Ulukaya highlighted the need for a comprehensive approach to refugees, as well as stating that the solution for many of the anxieties of refugees, such as being able to take care of their families, was to allow them to work. He shared the story of how his employees celebrated when the daughter of one of the workers got an offer from Yale univeristy, and used this anecdote to underline how life-changing the right to work for refugees could be in terms of their social mobility. Sir Mehmet Simsek recalled his approaches in combatting negativity towards refugees, all of which required a swift response and empathy towards local sensitivities. Among his more unorthodox methods was a widespread publicity campaign to highlight the fact that refugees committed crimes at a rate 75% than local Turkish citizens to counteract negative public perceptions about refugees, and fast-tracking a 50,000 housing unit project on treasury land to combat a housing shortage which had been exacerbated by the influx of refugees. YB Nurul Izzah Anwar added on by acknowledging that the refugee situation was often swept under the rug, and that the government had been exploring pilot projects to involve refugees in the workforce. She mentioned that the Qatar government had supplied Malaysia with funding to vaccinate refugees and educated around 450,000 stateless children.
The forum also saw the launch of IDEAS’ latest policy paper titled ‘Economic Impact of Granting Refugees in Malaysia the Right to Work’, written by Laurence Todd, Adli Amirullah, and Wan Ya Shin. The paper provided a brief breakdown of the situation for refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia, before providing an assessment of the potential economic impact granting refugees the right to work would have on Malaysia. The paper also explored the estimated impacts a work permit for refugees over a five year period, and considered the potential longer-term economic contribution of refugees over 20 years. The CEO of Ideas, Ali Salman provided a brief summary of the paper to the audience, in addition to his thoughts on what were potential stumbling blocks to allowing refugees to legally work in Malaysia. In his opinion, these obstacles were short-term economic impacts, the fact that Malaysia hadn’t ratified the UN refugee protocol, bureaucratic resistance in the government, and the negative social perception of refugees.
The evening concluded with an inspiring speech from Mohammdull Hasson, a Burmese refugee born in Bangladesh who told his hardship-filled story about his journey from Bangladesh in a boat to reaching Malaysia, which culminated with his position as a Policy and Healthy Coordinator at the Geutanyoe Institute. More importantly, his words provided testimony to the concept of the evening; that every refugee wanted to be able to ‘take care of their own families and community’.