Malaysia rally against Rohingya 'genocide' worsens frictions with Myanmar
A banner is tied to barbed-wire outside the Myanmar embassy during a protest against what organisers say is the crackdown on ethnic Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, in Jakarta, Indonesia November 25, 2016. REUTERS/Darren Whiteside

Malaysia's Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi has said Malaysia will allow Rohingya refugees to work legally in the country. The landmark move will start off as a pilot project on March 1. Kuala Lumpur was one of the Southeast Asian capitals to have made early calls to end the persecution of the Musilm minority Rohingya people in Myanmar.

Zahid said in a statement that the offer is applicable only to those Rohingya who are UNHCR cardholders and have undergone health and security screening. The successful applicants will be placed with selected companies in the plantation and manufacturing industries.

"They will be able to gain skills and income to make a living before being relocated to a third country," Zahid told Channel NewsAsia. Zahid, who is also the Home Minister, said the new project will address the issue of human trafficking and prevent exploitation of Rohingya as forced labour and illegal workers in the country.

According to an earlier statement by Deputy Home Minister Nur Jazlan, the pilot project did not receive much response. He said only 120 Rohingya had shown their interest in joining the programme. "The Rohingya want to stay within their own community," Nur Jazlan said last week. "They prefer to be entrepreneurs and do small business within their community. They don't want to be tied down in plantations," he added.

There were about 150,000 UNHCR cardholders from 62 countries in Malaysia as of Dec 31, 2016. Migrant rights group Tenaganita said almost 90 percent are from Myanmar, with 56,000 being Rohingya.

Glorene Fernandez, executive director of Tenaganita, praised the government for starting the pilot project. But at the same time he said that it should not be limited to only Rohingya. "We should not discriminate against other refugees. The project should be opened to all," Fernandez said.

Malaysia has been sheltering refugees for decades now, although it is not a signatory to the UN convention on refugees. Once the refugees register themselves with UNHCR, they are allowed to live and mix with the local communities. But they don't have any legal right to work or have access to healthcare and education.