Are There Two Kinds of Refugees in Malaysia?

Malaysia has formally agreed to accept 3,000 Syrian refugees into our country. Is this good news for everyone?

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Are There Two Kinds of Refugees in Malaysia?
By boat and by air, they find their way to Malaysia.

We are facing the largest migrant crisis in the world today. The five-year Syrian conflict has seen 4.8 million refugees displaced into neighbouring countries with hundreds of thousands in Europe and 6.6 million people displaced within Syria.

Life as a refugee

Malaysia is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and does not recognise refugees and asylum seekers in domestic law. This has far reaching impacts to the lives of refugees seeking asylum in Malaysia and exposes them to threats. To fully understand the consequence of this, you have to understand what it means to live as a refugee in Malaysia:

1.       1. Unless you are registered under the UNHCR as an asylum-seeker, you can be forcefully deported.

2.       2. You are not allowed to work in official channels.

3.       3. Your children are not allowed to go to government schools.

4.       4. You are not given any form of healthcare.

5.       5. Once registered as a refugee with the UNHCR you are in a situation of self-reliance. No support is given.

There’s a grey area when speaking about work because the government allows informal work with payment in cash or kind – permitted for humanitarian reasons. This opens up the first avenue for exploitation. The inability to work exacerbates many other conditions like the inability to pay for medical bills, to award an education to your children, or even to afford housing. There are no camps set up in Malaysia and many refugees have found placement by contacting people from their home country.

An apartment block where several Rohingya families are living together. Image: Maurico Lima/New York Times

So is the case for the 154,140 refugees and asylum-seekers registered with the UNHCR in Malaysia as of end April 2016. 139,780 of which are from Myanmar, comprising some 53,410 Rohingyas, 43,660 Chins, 11,530 Myanmar Muslims, 6,100 Rakhines and Arakanese, and other ethnicities from Myanmar. There are some 14,370 refugees and asylum-seekers from other countries, including some 3,060 Sri Lankans, 2,260 Pakistanis, 1,510 Somalis, 1,460 Syrians, 1,410 Yemenis, 1,320 Iraqis, 740 Afghans, 650 Palestinians, and others from other countries. 68% of refugees and asylum-seekers are men, while 32% are women. 34,600 of the children registered are below the age of 18.

The so-called two-tier system

The scene at the Royal Malaysian Air Force airbase. Image: EPA

That’s 150,000 people living without basic healthcare, money, or the means to a better life. This is not the case for the 68 Syrian refugees who arrived in Malaysia on May 28. The migrants in question will be allowed to work and their children will be allowed to go to public schools with housing allegedly prepared for them in Setia Alam. Is there a discrepancy in the system, or is this a sign of better things to come for the displaced people already in Malaysia?

We spoke to Yante Ismail an External Relations Officer for the UNHCR in Malaysia and she commends the government for accepting the 68 Syrian migrants and the 3,000 total that Malaysia has committed to receive. That said, she has not received word that the same privileges will extend to the current refugees already in Malaysia, 1,460 of them Syrians.

Refugee communities in Malaysia

Refugee children receiving education at the SAHABAT Support Centre (SSC) ran by MSRI. Image: MSRI

She tells us that refugees who come to Malaysia don’t come in isolation, they seek asylum here either because they have friends or family members already living here. Within their community, they find work for each other and set up informal learning centres for the children. She directs us to the Malaysian Social Research Institute Program (MSRI), an NGO who is running one of the many centres in Malaysia providing basic healthcare, vocational training, plus education for children for refugees.

Primary and secondary school children at the SAHABAT Support Centre (SSC) ran by MSRI. Image: MSRI

Lia Syed, the Executive Director of MSRI tells us that they serve a community of 27 different nationalities. Families register with the MSRI so that MSRI can extend emergency relief if needed and they conduct regular open days for anyone who needs help. Lia tells us about their efforts in providing education to over 160 children, with a waiting list of 100 kids. In the kindergarten there are 130 children receiving education with more on the waiting list as well. They are desperately looking for a premise than can house at least 300 children in the Ampang area. If you’d like to help them out, email Lia at  

What can the law do?

So does the acceptance and privileges of the incoming Syrians provide precedence for all refugees and future refugees? The Bar Council of Malaysia certainly hopes so. Speaking to Dato M. Ramachelvam, Chairman of the Migrants, Refugees, and Immigration Affairs Committee of the Bar Council of Malaysia, he similarly welcomed the position of the government in giving the right to work and the right to education but asks for two things: give the rights for all refugees to work, and grant all of their children the right to an education. He argues that from a humanitarian standpoint, the fact that Malaysia is a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the government must take action to allow refugee children in Malaysia similar rights to education. This is a fact that has already been lobbied since 2011 when the Bar produced recommendations in a proposal titled “Developing a Comprehensive Policy Framework for Refugees and Asylum Seekers”.

What can we do?

Rather than throwing money at the problem, clarity is needed. We need Malaysians questioning and lobbying for the rights of our fellow man. We need on the ground support for displaced peoples and empathy for their plight. Also, challenge people to combat ignorance. Read up on the issues faced by refugees at the UNHCR, the MSRI, or Asylum Access. And yes, you can also donate. 

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