KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – “People always ask me, why are you helping refugees when there are people, here at home, who need help?
“This is home for refugees”, said Heidy Quah, recipient of the 2017 Queen’s Young Leaders Award for her work co-founding Malaysia’s Refuge for the Refugees.
Quah, aged 23 years, founded the Kuala Lumpur-based educational organisation with a friend in secondary school after hearing that the informal refugee school they were teaching English at would no longer be able to provide education to its students due to a lack of funding.
“These kids were being robbed of their only access to education”, Quah said. “That’s how Refuge for Refugees started as a project to tackle the issues of one school. But as we continued, we realised Malaysians weren’t aware of the plight of refugees.”
Refugees without the status
Many Malaysians are not able to discern the difference between refugees and illegal migrant workers. This is because the government does not make this distinction.
Malaysia is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention or its 1967 amended protocol. It does not recognise the rights of refugees under international law.
The number of unregistered refugees varies widely according to reports. Asylum Access Malaysia, a refugee rights organisation, states there can be anywhere from 40 000 to 140 000 unregistered refugees in the country. The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, has registered 152 170 refugees in Malaysia.
According to Asylum Access Malaysia, roughly 90% of Malaysia’s refugee population is Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority group from western Myanmar—formerly known as Burma—that has been deprived of citizenship since its independence in 1948.
In Malaysia, there is no way to determine if more Rohingya are arriving to date. Over the past 5 years human traffickers and smugglers have brought many Rohingya and other refugees by boat from Myanmar or Bangladesh towards Malaysia.
It is unknown how many have died at sea or are being held in Malaysian immigration detention centres, where conditions have been described by the Malaysian national human rights commission as “torture-like”.
UNHCR found that at least 24 refugees and asylum seekers died inside these detention centres from 2015 to 2017, The Guardian reported in May, 2017. A 2014 Al Jazeera investigation exposed that Malaysia detained children with their parents within these detention centres, in disagreement with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
In 2015, the so-called boat crisis gripped Malaysia. The government, alongside Thailand and Indonesia, sealed its borders temporarily, effectively blocking access to an estimated 6000 Rohingya and Bangladeshi stranded on boats after being abandoned at sea by smugglers.
The Malaysian Government later allowed the refugees to enter the country after a public outcry.
Deepa Nambiar, director of Asylum Access Malaysia, says many in Malaysia are expecting Rohingya refugees fleeing the squalid camps of Myanmar and Bangladesh to reach the country.
An estimated 650 000 Rohingya refugees have fled Myanmar’s alleged army clearance operations to refugee camps in Bangladesh. Nambiar says an influx of displaced people can be expected this year when strong winds on the Andaman sea become less of an obstacle.
Access to education and health
The biggest challenge for refugees is accessing education, health care, and livelihoods. Most do not have any form of documentation. They often face harassment from authorities and must pay bribes to police for minor infractions such as not carrying proper identification or visas.
Registration with UNHCR gives refugees access to an UNHCR card. For most refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia, this is their only form of identification.
With this card, children can receive an education. The UNHCR in Malaysia runs what it calls a “parallel school system”, supporting 128 informal refugee schools teaching at a basic primary level. But it is under-resourced and underfunded, relying on donations and volunteers, mostly from faith-based organisations or charities.
“The quality of education is low. Syllabuses are incredibly inconsistent. It’s very community-based,” said Nambiar.
The UNHCR card also allows refugees to receive 50% off medical bills in Malaysia.
But they are charged the rate that is paid by non-nationals at hospitals; as such, out-of-pocket expenses remain prohibitive for most refugees. Charitable organisations such as the International Catholic Migration Commission and Taiwan Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation offer free health-care service to refugees but often operate within a legal grey area.
The 2014 Al Jazeera investigation also uncovered UNHCR Malaysia staff translators selling fake refugee cards on the black market. This led to an internal investigation.
The UNHCR Malaysia office did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.
Calling Malaysia a home
A refugee repatriation deal struck between Bangladesh and Myanmar, once implemented, will mean Rohingya refugees will be sent back to Rakhine State, with no assurances from either the UN or Myanmar’s army that its alleged crackdown against militants and civilians will cease.
Rohingya refugees in Malaysia fear the country might want to do the same in the future.
Malaysia could be an attractive destination for Rohingya. Although the country does not offer a solution to their statelessness, Malaysian refugees are not subjected to violent persecution by the state. There’s an established Rohingya community and refugee schools are free for children. Whereas Malaysia is officially secular, Islam is its official religion.
Many Rohingya find informal work in Malaysia, in what is called by Nambiar the three D jobs: dirty, demeaning, and dangerous. They can find work as cleaners, on construction sites and plantations, or in factories.
“Exploitation within the workforce is very high. There’s no security”, said Nambiar. Knowing there are no legal implications or recourse for these actions, Malaysian employers can refuse payment to refugees or terminate their employment without notice or severance.
A pilot project started by the Malaysian Government and supported by the UNHCR has allowed 300 Rohingya refugees to begin work in the plantation sector. Implementing this project on a wider scale in other sectors could one day provide refugees with official work permits, which could help address Rohingya families’ needs for identification.
“It does feel there is some room opening up for formal employment in Malaysia. It remains to be seen how it is implemented”, said Nambiar.
In 2017, UNHCR Malaysia announced a 5-year community-based protection strategy to “increase its engagement with refugee communities and diverse stakeholders, including those from Kuala Lumpur who have had limited access with UNHCR in the past, to effectively address vulnerabilities and safeguard protection space for refugees”.
“The next 5-year plan is to see the landscape of refugees change in Malaysia, where we stop depending on UNHCR”, Quah said. “We [will] start empowering civil society organisations on the ground to be self-sustainable.”
“I think there’s a lot of attention that can be had about Rohingya in Malaysia. It’s a developing country and so [people say] ‘Rohingya here are fine’, but they really aren’t”, Nambiar said. “But more than in many other countries, Rohingya here are seen with a very sympathetic lens.”
For Quah, the first step to changing the perception of refugees in Malaysia is to educate them and make them feel that this is home.
Refuge for the Refugees now supports ten informal schools in Malaysia. Over the past 5 years, it has helped to educate 1875 refugee children in Malaysia and has expanded into Myanmar.
Because secondary education is not an option for most refugee youth after finishing primary classes, Refuge for the Refugees is looking to begin vocational skills training, starting with baking classes, so they can learn new skills and earn income. A welfare fund will be set up by UNHCR to assist groups helping refugees, according to Quah.
This was achieved in a country where refugees are still not allowed to officially work or study. Quah says that most of these students now contribute to the economy and public life in Malaysia. She now wants her country to recognise them.