Irene is the founder of Tenaganita, a group which advocates the protection of migrants and refugees. Irene is a veteran activist who has consistently and valiantly asserted the rights of women, workers, and other marginalized sectors of society. She was a recipient of the Right Livelihood Award in 2005, an alternative Nobel prize.
Irene was arrested in 1996 and charged with “maliciously publishing false news” in relation to her work exposing the abuse of migrants in detention centers. Her trial which lasted 13 years became the longest in Malaysian history.
The Aliran human rights group recognized the bravery of Irene who was viciously persecuted by the government:
The cause of human rights has lost a staunch fighter who courageously stood up in defence of fairness and the just treatment of unfortunate migrant workers who are often exploited and mistreated by unscrupulous employers and agencies.
She was dedicated and determined in pursuing her cause for the welfare of the downtrodden. And like all human rights advocates everywhere, she was persecuted by a government that does not brook any defiance by anyone in the pursuit of justice.
Steve Oh described Irene as Malaysia’s ‘Joan of Arc’ of maltreated migrants:
The political tyrants made life unfairly difficult for this intrepid, irrepressible and humble Malaysian ‘Joan of Arc’ of maltreated migrants and repressed refugees in her country.
It is hard to speak of Irene without recalling the hostile environment where the authorities are unwilling to be scrutinised and held accountable for their deeds. She overcame the untold hardships she suffered at the hands of the overbearing authorities that had harassed her.
As I write, I recall the strength of this remarkable woman in whose stoic countenance were etched the sufferings of a saintly woman, sufferings not the fruit of personal making but from helping the helpless in their pitiful plight.
Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim also paid tribute to Irene:
…a champion of the weak, the poor and the marginalized, and a fighter of true grit in the face of persecution and constant harassment by the authorities.
Indeed, also a sad personal loss as she had been a close family friend and my colleague since our Malaysian Youth Council days.
Klang MP Charles Santiago summed up the legacy of Irene:
None of the persecution and harassment she faced doused her spirit to fight on. She, in fact, waged wars that were truly inspirational for the younger generation. Her commitment to human rights and justice is legendary.
We all aim to leave an imprint as we end our journey on earth. Irene leaves behind a legacy which will continue to not just fight for the rights of the oppressed and underprivileged, but also continue to inspire others to be courageous in the face of adversity and to soldier on to fight for what they believe in.
Irene is a friend and partner of various Asian human rights groups. One of them is the Philippine-based Center for Women's Resources:
Center for Women’s Resources is one with the people who deeply mourn Dr. Irene Fernandez's death. We give honor to a great woman who was so supportive of our struggle and advocacy. She was a citizen of the world, an activist without borders, a real internationalist.
On Facebook, Victor Sang Khambil remembered Irene as a fighter in behalf of the Chin people in Malaysia:
I can only say that death ends a life but not a relationship. Irene Fernandez is not only in the history book of Malaysia as a great human rights defender but she is living forever with the Chin people too. Goodbye my friend, here is my last word to you, ” you will never die because you are a living symbol of a woman's courage.”
The Asian Peasant Coalition mentioned Irene’s agrarian reform advocacy:
Irene’s sudden death shocked us and we are very saddened. However, our beloved Irene will always inspire us. We call on the people who were inspired by her sincere work to translate their sympathy into a more painstaking work to serve the oppressed people. We will continue her legacy. We will continue our struggle for genuine agrarian reform and food sovereignty!
A few years ago, the United States recognized Irene as one of the leading activists in the world who fought hard to end modern-day slavery. Ambassador Joseph Y. Yun expressed sadness over the passing of Irene:
People throughout Malaysia and around the world had great respect for her long record of fighting on behalf of the poor and marginalized. A few years earlier, the State Department acknowledged Irene as one of ten leading activists around the world working to end modern-day slavery. The United States Government could not have found a better person to honor. We were all moved by her conviction and her contribution to promoting respect for human rights in Malaysia. We will all truly miss Irene’s passion, dedication and, above all, her friendship.