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10 Things You Must Know About Refugees In Malaysia

20th June is World Refugee Day, a day where the spotlight is on refugees. We want to recognise them as people who deserve basic human rights and opportunities in life, we want to celebrate their courage and resilience in their fight for survival and we want to be their voice to be heard – to raise awareness of their plight and protect their futures. 

Refugees, or really displaced persons in general, are some of the world’s most vulnerable people. Every displaced person deserves our attention, and we hope that this list can act as an introduction. While we can’t possibly include everything, these ten points will give you insight into refugees’ lives in Malaysia. 

#1: In May 2021, there were 179,570 documented refugee and asylum seekers in Malaysia[1].

There are roughly another 80,000 more that are undocumented and awaiting registration by UNHCR. The refugee demographic is mostly made up of previous citizens of Myanmar like the Rohingya and Chin ethnic groups[1]. Other refugees come from Pakistan, Yemen, Syria, Somalia, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Iraq, Palestine, among others[1].

#2: Most of these refugees can be found throughout Malaysia, but mostly concentrated in the states of Selangor, Kuala Lumpur and Pulau Pinang[1].

It is theorised that these refugees have the largest populations in city areas because of the higher demand for workers.

#3: Malaysia does not accommodate the presence of refugees[2].

Thanks to international pressure, Malaysia has permitted refugees one year to resettle elsewhere, however, as Malaysia is not tied to the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees (Refugee Convention)[2] it does not provide the necessary provisions for refugee rights. From a federal point of view, the nation does not have any legal policy, or administrative framework regarding the protection of refugees, or their rights[2]

#4: Only a fraction of refugee children receive some form of education[3].

There are roughly 45,980 refugee children under the age of eighteen[2]. As refugees are not allowed to participate in local, government schools, they have very limited access to formal education. Refugee children attend school at alternative learning centres that are either set up as NGOs, sustained through private funding or grants and some are established by religious institutions[3]. Roughly 1,234 children aged three to five years old are in preschool, 5,046 children between six and thirteen years old are enrolled in primary education and only 874 children between fourteen and seventeen are in secondary education[3]. None of these children will receive formal recognition or certification upon completing their years of schooling cutting them off from higher education. 

#5: The refugee learning experience may be compromised. Refugees usually rent a room to have classes[4].

There are only 133 refugee learning centres in Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur, Selangor, Perak, Pahang, Terengganu, Negeri Sembilan, Melaka, Johor, Pulau Pinang, Kedah, Kelantan[3].Common educational facilities include informal learning or community-based learning centres, run by the refugees themselves, and assisted by local organizations or religious groups[4]. Many of these centres are small, lacking basic teaching facilities and experience high teacher turnover rates as a result of the lack of funds[4]. Many classes operate without a standardised syllabus and teach few subjects. 

#6: Refugees are usually employed in informal, low-skilled jobs such as construction sites, farms and plantations[5].

Popular sectors of employment include agriculture, construction, and cleaning with over 47,000 workers employed[5]. Most refugees work on a short term contract basis with those that can speak the local language and in-demand skills having an edge over the rest. Refugees usually find work through their social circles via friends, families, neighbours and even kind strangers[6]

#7: Most of the time, their previous professional skills and expertise are rendered useless when looking for work in Malaysia[6].

Those who can’t get contracts to work resort to self-employment opportunities that can vary anywhere between recycling collections, fish sellers, daycare workers, and restaurant or store managers[6]. While several can work for their community as Imams and teachers, many conduct informal income-generating activities such as tutoring Rohingya children, selling home-cooked food, and even resort to depending on donations or begging[6]

#8: Refugees are forced to work in dangerous conditions for minimal pay[8].

Because hiring a refugee is technically illegal, their work environment is unsafe, unhygienic, and unhealthy[8]. Workers are subject to physical, verbal and mental abuse by their employers and law enforcement. On top of this, refugees face ambiguous work schedules, receive late salary or no salary (in some cases) for work done. There comes no responsibility with no legal documentation, no promise of work hours, and no proper payment schedule. Workers are subjected to the whims of their employers. This ultimately leads to ‘free labour’

#9: A majority of refugees live in apartments shared with up to fifty people[9].

To save on living expenses, refugees share living spaces with other refugee families in their social circle[10]. With this setup, refugees can pool together their resources and support one another. However, other than the cramped spaces, these houses fall short in sanitation and inconsistent supply of electricity[11]. There is also a higher risk of the spread of disease, sexual abuse and physical violence[10]

#10: Refugees pay 24 to 100 times more than Malaysian citizens for public healthcare[12].

Having to pay RM100 just to register at a local hospital, the majority of refugees cannot afford treatment without burning a hole in their savings[12]. Those that can afford it, do not go anyway, in fear of being arrested by law enforcement agents while trying to seek treatment because doctors are obligated to report undocumented foreigners to the police under the Malaysian Immigration Act[13]

Find data, maps and how you can help in our report – Providing Hope For The Refugees in Klang Valley.

Explore Our Sources:

  1. UNHCR Malaysia. (2021). Figures at a Glance in Malaysia. Link.
  2. R. R. Togoo, F. H. M. Ismail. (2021). Security Dilemma of Rohingya Refugees in Malaysia. OJPS, 11(1). Link. 
  3. UNHCR. (n.d.). Education in Malaysia.  Link.
  4. Sahak, S., Nordin, R., & Ishak, M. K. (2020). The plight of refugees in Malaysia: Malaysia as a transit country in protecting refugees’ rights. Journal of Nusantara Studies. Link.
  5. Todd, L. et al. (2019). The Economic Impact of Granting Refugees in Malaysia the Right to Work. IDEAS Malaysia. Link.
  6. C. Wake & T. Cheung. (2016). Livelihoods Strategies of Rohingya Refugees In Malaysia. ‘We Want To Live in Dignity’. HPG Working Paper. Link.
  7. UNHCR. Malaysia. (2017). Livelihoods in Malaysia. Link.
  8. Nungsai, M. et al. (2020). Poverty and precarious employment: the case of Rohingya refugee construction workers in Peninsular Malaysia. Nature Portfolio. Link
  9. Nah, A. M. (2010). Refugees and Space in Urban Areas in Malaysia. ALNAP – Overseas Development Institute. Link.
  10. Mixed Migration Center (MMC). (2020). Urban Mixed Migration Kuala Lumpur Case Study. Link.
  11. Shelterhome. (2004). Refugees and their children. Link.
  12. Wiki Impact. (2021). Accessing Healthcare Services in Malaysia: The Plight of Refugees. Link.
  13. ILO. (n.d). Immigration Act 1959/63 (Act 155). Link.
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