IN Malaysia, a country that has positioned itself as a go-to destination for migrants escaping war and persecution in their homes, access to education is a luxury for refugee children.
Malaysia is not party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, but according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), there were 246,270 “people of concern” in Malaysia last year, a figure that included registered refugees, asylum seekers, as well as other categories of stateless people and those in “refugee-like” situations.
There are dozens of schools here that provide education for the offspring of this sidelined community, many of whom are the Muslim Rohingya from Myanmar (Burma), the most persecuted minority in the world. But the syllabus is said to be insufficient for these youngsters, whose families left home with the dream of starting better lives elsewhere.
According to a UNHCR report in 2013: “Malaysian law makes no distinction between refugees and undocumented migrants. There are some 4 million migrants in the country, approximately 2 million of whom are undocumented and considered illegal.
“Refugees are vulnerable to arrest for immigration offences, and may be subject to detention, prosecution and punishment, including whipping and deportation. National NGOs have limited capacity to support asylum-seekers and refugees, while international NGOs face significant difficulties in operating in the country.”
This still rings true today. A university education is not possible for the refugee child in Malaysia, not especially when local regulation prohibits them from entering the national education system.
“I worry so much about my education after finishing in the refugee school,” says a 13-year-old Rohingya refugee Junaiqah Rifraq.
Junaiqah and her family fled Myanmar years ago in search of a better future.
“We crossed the border form Myanmar to Thailand, went through mountains, climbed and slept there for three days before we could reach the nearest town,” she adds. “Then we took a boat from Thailand to Malaysia.”
The perilous journey is one that many Muslim Rohingya know all too well. Many brave choppy seas aboard rickety boats only to end up becoming victims of trafficking, which Malaysia is notorious for. In the United States Department of State Trafficking-in-Persons (TIP) report released in July this year, the country remained in the Tier 2 Watch List.
It said: “The more than 150,000 registered refugees and asylum-seekers in Malaysia lack formal status or the ability to obtain legal work permits, leaving them vulnerable to trafficking.
“Many refugees incur large smuggling debts, which traffickers use to subject some refugees to debt bondage. Children from refugee communities in Peninsular Malaysia are reportedly subjected to forced begging.”
In an article for The Interpreter, Rachel Buckland, an intern for the Migration and Border Policy Project, said if formal ratification of the 1951 Refugee Convention is too much of a commitment for Malaysia, its government should recognize displaced persons as “people of concern” in need of protection.
Buckland adds that a special government-administered scheme would do well to address two areas that the UNHCR views as priorities for refugees around the world – the right to work and the right to education.
As the agency says on its Malaysia website: “Like all children, refugee children have the fundamental right to life, survival and development to the maximum extent possible.”
According to Richard Towle, the UNHCR representative to Malaysia, a better regulated scheme that allows refugees to enter the workforce would give a significant boost to the country’s economy. He pointed out that the World Bank in its 2015 Malaysia Economic Monitor showed that legalized refugees would lead to the creation of more jobs in Malaysia, increased wages for Malaysians and an increased Gross Domestic Product.
“UNHCR estimates the monetary contributions generated by a legalized refugee workforce could amount to RM152 million in annual revenue for Malaysia, based on the same levy rates as legal foreign workers.
“This means that the cost of hosting refugees in Malaysia would be more than offset by their positive contributions,” he wrote in an article published by the New Straits Times in conjunction with the World Refugee Day on June 20.
But for now, to refugees like Junaiqah and her family, a successful future remains a pipe dream.
“I want to be a doctor, but it seems to be no place for me here, (not) till my family gets the green light to resettle overseas,” she says.
According to Esther Kim, a principal in the Hilla Community Centre, a lack of adequate schooling is a long-term problem for the stateless in Malaysia.
“They are not weaker in their school results compared to the local students,” said Esther Kim. “It’s just that these kids are having less opportunity to learn.”
Hilla is a community school that provides education for refugees from Afghanistan and Myanmar.
Laila Rafiq, 13, is a student in the school. For this teenager, education is not her only concern.
She tells this writer of frightening instances when she and her father would get stopped by local police. Explaining one such incident, Laila said they were waylaid one day and asked to produce some identification.
But because they were still new to the country, they were still not in possession of a UN card to prove their refugee status.
“The police asked my dad for money or he would put us in jail,” she said. “We are scared of police, very much scared of them.”
It was only after two years of living in fear that Laila and her family received their refugee cards.
But how much will life change for the teen and thousands of others like her? Only time will tell.
In its latest effort, Malaysia last month joined the international community in adopting the New York Declaration during the 71st United Nations General Assembly. In the declaration during the High-Level Meeting on Large Movement of Refugees and Migrants, member nations agreed to share responsibilities on the need for better coordinated effort on providing humanitarian assistance to the estimated 65 million displaced persons around the world.
“I strongly give my assurance that Malaysia would not neglect its international obligations and commitments in addressing conflict-induced migration caused by war, natural calamities, political unrest and armed conflicts,” Malaysia’s Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said, according to the NST.
As at end August 2016, there were a total 150,200 refugees and asylum-seekers registered with UNHCR in Malaysia. An estimated 135,400 hail from Myanmar, comprising some 53,900 Rohingyas, 42,710 Chins, 11,020 Myanmar Muslims, 5,390 Rakhines and Arakanese, and other ethnicity from there. Those from other countries include 2,830 Sri Lankans, 2,480 Pakistanis, 1,740 Yemenis, 1,570 Somalis, 1,490 Syrians, 1,310 Iraqis, 820 Afghans and others from different nations.
The body also estimates that of these, there are some 34,230 refugee children below the age of 18. At least 21,880 are of school-going age although only 28 percent have access to some kind of education.