KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia will begin a pilot project on Mar 1 allowing Rohingya refugees to work legally in the country, Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said on Thursday (Feb 2).
In a statement issued after he chaired a high-level UNHCR meeting at his Putrajaya office, Mr Zahid said the offer is open only to Rohingya who are UNHCR cardholders and have undergone health and security screenings.
Successful applicants will be placed with selected companies in the plantation and manufacturing industries.
Said Mr Zahid: "They will be able to gain skills and income to make a living before being relocated to a third country."
Mr Zahid, who is also Home Minister, said the project will help to address the human trafficking issue and prevent exploitation of Rohingya as forced labour and illegal workers in the country.
However, Deputy Home Minister Nur Jazlan earlier told Channel NewsAsia that the pilot was not being received well. Commenting on the project in an interview last week, he said that only 120 Rohingya had indicated their interest in joining the programme.
"The Rohingya want to stay within their own community," said Mr Nur Jazlan. "They prefer to be entrepreneurs and do small business within their community. They don't want to be tied down in plantations."
As of Dec 31, 2016, there were about 150,000 UNHCR cardholders from 62 countries in Malaysia. Almost 90 per cent are from Myanmar, with 56,000 being Rohingya. Undocumented ones run into the thousands, said migrant rights group Tenaganita.
Ms Glorene Fernandez, executive director of Tenaganita, lauded the government's move to begin such a project, but said it should not be limited to just Rohingya.
"We should not discriminate against other refugees. The project should be opened to all," she said.
Malaysia is not a signatory to the UN convention on refugees but has been sheltering refugees for decades. Once refugees are registered with UNHCR, they are allowed to mingle and live with the local communities but have no legal right to work or access to healthcare and education.