ASEAN lawmakers urged regional governments today to do more to protect migrant workers and refugees, arguing that all members of the ASEAN community are entitled to basic rights and deserve to have their dignity and humanity respected.
Members of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) made the call at the conclusion of a four-day fact-finding mission to Malaysia examining human rights in the context of migration. During their visit, MPs met with stakeholders, including civil society organizations, migrant and refugee communities, UN agencies, government officials, and counterparts in the Malaysian Parliament, to assess the situation of migrant workers, refugees and asylum seekers, and victims of human trafficking in the country, as well as explore potential regional solutions to the challenges they face.
“From our conversations over the last several days, it’s clear that there is major room for improvement. Both destination and source countries need to step up and do their part to end abusive recruitment and employment practices for migrant workers and promote security and rights for refugees fleeing persecution,” said APHR Board Member Teddy Baguilat, a member of the House of Representatives of the Philippines.
“ASEAN and member governments have a duty to ensure that all people – whether their own citizens or those from other countries – are protected. This should include strengthening domestic and regional legal frameworks to provide security and enable people to pursue recourse and justice.”
APHR undertook its fact-finding mission just over a month after the start of an ongoing crackdownon undocumented migrant workers in Malaysia, which has already resulted in thousands of arrests. Speaking with local groups and workers, parliamentarians heard firsthand how the raids have impacted communities.
“Because of the ongoing crackdown, many migrants are living in constant fear. Poor treatment by law enforcement, including indefinite detention in abysmal conditions, are urgent concerns as well,” said Philippine Congresswoman Emmi De Jesus.
“Millions of migrant workers, both documented and undocumented, throughout the ASEAN region continue to be vulnerable to abuse because governments have failed to put in place the necessary protections. That goes for both sending and receiving countries. Regional action is therefore necessary to ensure that all migrants are able to enjoy their basic human rights.”
MPs called on ASEAN governments to urgently adopt a binding regional treaty on migrant workers, which protects all workers and their families. The treaty has been under negotiation for a decade since the adoption of the ASEAN Declaration on the Promotion and Protection of Migrant Workers in 2007, and ASEAN leaders plan to revisit the possibility of its adoption later this year.
“Migrant workers region-wide provide a critical economic contribution, which should be recognized by governments. Unfortunately, it seems that the entire economic system has instead institutionalized the mistreatment of these migrants,” Rep. De Jesus said.
“Domestic workers are particularly vulnerable, as they face unique hardships as women in isolated work environments and lack legal protections that other workers enjoy. During our meetings, we heard harrowing stories of emotional and physical abuse by employers of domestic workers. It’s clear that government policies need to change in order to deal with this,” she added.
Parliamentarians also addressed the plight of refugees in Malaysia, many of whom hail from ethnic minority communities in Myanmar, including Rohingya, Chin, and others. During their visit, MPs met with refugee communities, who described challenges accessing registration procedures and a precarious legal position in the country. Several refugees told MPs that they have waited years to get registered with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), and an increasing number are being denied refugee status.
“The stories we heard directly from refugees are deeply concerning. These people are living without legal status or security, and in many cases without proper access to affordable healthcare, education, or livelihoods. As a former refugee, myself, it’s particularly upsetting to see this lack of protection persist,” said Senator Seng Mardi of Cambodia.
“Refugees are among the most vulnerable people in the world, and they are facing extreme hurdles to accessing documentation and basic security guarantees here. UNHCR and the Malaysian government should do more to address this gap and provide effective registration and genuine protection. All ASEAN governments, including Malaysia, should ratify the UN Refugee Convention and fully commit to protecting and welcoming refugees and asylum seekers.”
Parliamentarians reminded governments of their pledges to promote a people-centered ASEAN, as well as their international human rights commitments. ASEAN governments can and should do better in responding to the challenges faced by migrants and refugees, APHR said.
“We always talk about a caring and sharing ASEAN. Let’s make that a reality. Whether someone moves across borders because they are fleeing conflict, looking for better job opportunities, or because they were trafficked, we have a responsibility to protect their rights,” said Rep. Baguilat.
“We don’t have to look very hard to find out what these rights are as they are clearly outlined in international law. They include the right to work, the freedom from arbitrary detention, the right to adequate food and basic education, and other basic freedoms.”