70% Of Refugee Children In Malaysia Are Not Educated

Treated as mere outcasts in a country that they simply wish to call a second home, the plight of refugee children appears to be constant and never-ending. 

As if having to flee from the country you were born in to save your own life is not burdensome enough, refugee children also have to face other struggles such as being denied access to Malaysian formal education. 

Oftentimes, refugees have to take matters into their own hands in order to provide quality education for the new generation so that they will be able to lead better lives. One of the examples of this is the story of Sadek Khan, a 20 year old Myanmar refugee who, with the help of Penangites, built a learning centre out of an old kampung house in Bagan Dalam, Penang, for the sake of providing education for the refugee youths[1]. This goes to show how refugee children are in dire need of formal education. 

How Many Refugee Children Are There In Malaysia? 

Source: UNHCR

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are a total of 150,379 people of concern (PoCs) in Malaysia. 25,499 of them are under the age of 18, with 23,823 of school-going ages.

Of the 23,823 that are of school-going ages, only 30% are enrolled in community learning centres[2]

Around 14% (1,234) of refugee children aged 3-5 years enrolled in pre-school education, 44% (5,046) of refugee children aged 6-13 years enrolled in primary education, and 16% (874) refugee children aged 14-17 enrolled in secondary education[2].

Can Refugee Children Get An Education? 

Source: UNHCR

Education falls under basic human rights. Everyone deserves to learn, gain knowledge, and be educated. Although all children have the right to receive an education, it does not mean that they, particularly refugees and asylum-seekers, have access to it. Based on the aforementioned statistics, it can be deduced that around 70% of refugee children in Malaysia are unable to have access to education[7].

Being denied the opportunity to further their studies and achieve the necessary qualifications that could help them land a proper paid job, most refugee children would opt for the next viable option, that’s to get married at a young age.

Refugees’ lives are just about getting married, having kids, and then their lives end. – Sadek Khan, a 20-year-old Rohingya refugee[1]

This is where UNHCR comes in. They advocate for access to education for all refugee children through financial and material support to partner learning centres, which tend to operate on little to none sustainable funds. UNHCR also supports the capacity building of teachers through teacher training and compensation, and coordinate ad-hoc support towards enhancing the access to, and the quality of, education for refugees[2].

Their efforts and activities all lead to one clear and simple goal: to improve access to all levels of education for young refugees.

This can be achieved through the implementation of partner organisations in the education sector which operates 10 learning centres and coordinate projects such as training for the teachers as well as teacher’s compensation. In fact, there are about 133 registered learning centres across Peninsular Malaysia that help provide education for refugee children currently[2]

Barriers To Education

Source: International Catholic Migration Commission

Most refugee children are only able to obtain education through informal learning or community-based learning centres. The centres bring a whole new list of challenges including a high turnover of teachers and minimal compensation due to lack of funding as well as security and safety issues for both students and teachers involved. 

In fact, with the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, it has become extremely difficult for refugee children to gain access to education. Due to the lack of financial resources, they are unable to shift to online learning like others[3].

Furthermore, refugees’ less than favourable reputation has led to many of their children having to deal with bullying and mockery by Malaysian students at schools. This can discourage them from attending classes due to fear and anxiety[8]

To make it worse, the language barrier makes it even harder for refugee children because they are unable to communicate properly with their peers and teachers.

I like Malaysia, but some Malaysians are not good to me. – A 14 year-old Iraqi refugee[4]

According to a mini-survey conducted on refugee children regarding their mental health, one in three Rohingya and Chin adolescents in school had depression of varying degrees, with girls were found to have a higher distress level than boys[8].

Informal Education for Refugees Children 

Source: International Catholic Migration Commission

A case study was conducted on informal learning centres for refugees. In the study, a humble two-story house made into a church was highlighted. The church housed refugees and low-wage migrant workers from Myanmar, and every square foot of the rented place was used as a learning space. Both the students and the teachers were refugees[9].

These types of learning centres are common for refugees. The restrictions enforced on refugees as well as the lack of proper documentations and economic resources have made access to formal education for the children unobtainable and far-fetched. 

This consequently leads to the lack of certification and access to public examinations, which prevents refugee children from having access to higher education.

In terms of education, not having such a structure means no access to education. Refugee children and youths in Malaysia, therefore, are educated via an informal parallel system. – Priya Sharma, School of Business lecturer, Monash University Malaysia[5]

Hence, the best option for them is to enroll in community-based schools, which are typically run by the refugee families themselves with the assistance of non-refugee organizations such as religious groups. Typically, they are located only within or near refugee communities, especially those with a significant number of school-age children, for convenience and safety reasons. 

Classes are usually held in rented flats or shops where the rooms are cramped and lack basic teaching facilities. This creates a problem where students find it difficult to focus on their studies because of the horrible conditions and environment[8]

The situation has only worsened considerably ever since the beginning of the pandemic as the learning centres had to be moved to smaller classes. While formal schools are allowed to stay open, attendees for traditional, in-person classes have to be limited and in accordance with the Standard Operating Procedure(SOP)[2].

The needs of these schools generally revolve around funding; wages for refugee teachers, transportation for refugee children, payment of utilities and rent of school premises, school meals, paperwork and teaching equipment. 

The quality of education is another cause of concern. Community-based schools would often operate without a syllabus or teach a very narrow range of subjects as many of the teachers are also refugees with inadequate training. As a result, there is a constant need for new teachers. This proves to be quite tough to manage because the salaries of the teachers are considerably low[8].

Teachers are not coming every day, and kids go just to have fun, not to study. – A 12 year-old Syrian refugee[4]

In short, there is still no proper school for the community, and the only education they receive is from unrecognized informal educational facilities run by NGOs, which is not enough to allow them to further their studies to the university level – a clear disparity in educational standards that does not equip them for a successful future, whether in Malaysia or elsewhere.

Ensuring Education For Refugee Children In Malaysia 

Source: UNHCR

Education remains a key tool in breaking out the cycle of poverty for any humankind, refugee or not. The clear lack of education access especially towards tertiary education prevalent within this community in Malaysia should be addressed well in the near future to enable them to break out of the current generational poverty cycle. This is essential in ensuring not only a literate community but a decent standard of living through better wages and stable employment status. Those in which could only be possible through future legislation of refugees in Malaysia backed up with solid educational background for individual competence. 

Some viable solutions that could be done to ensure that refugee youths, post-secondary education, are able to easily attend universities are setting up mentoring programs for aspiring youths and providing scholarships for specifically refugees. 

For instance, Connecting and Equipping Refugees For Tertiary Education, or CERTE for short, is one of the initiatives, supported by Open Universities for Refugees (OUR), UNHCR Malaysia, and a non-government agency Fugeelah, that was created to help push refugee youths into local and global tertiary education through knowledge and resource sharing, a bridge course preparation for school, and mentoring[6].

CERTE’s aim is to identify refugees who can demonstrate the motivation and academic potential to gain access to education, and to equip and empower them to gain a place at any university or college.[6]              

These sorts of efforts aid refugee children who are not welcomed to other nations as refugees, to have an opportunity to receive training that enables them to be employed in the global job market.

Bear in mind that although UNHCR and other related organizations try their best to help and ensure that asylum-seekers are living decently at best, policymakers need to step up and make the necessary changes in order to alleviate the lives of refugees.

Education is often a life-saving intervention for refugees in general, and it offers them protection and preserves their futures. – Priya Sharma, School of Business lecturer, Monash University Malaysia[5].

It is time we take a step back and realize that refugees are no different from us. Just like how we wish our children to receive proper education and get a good career in order to have a stable future and decent living, it is the same for refugees. Denying them of basic human rights is unjust, and this has to change. There are many ways to contribute to the cause and ensure that refugee children are receiving education. Check out some education Changemakers that are listed below:

United Learning Centre: A safe haven for Myanmar refugee children to live, love, learn and play, enabling them to rise above their circumstances and reach their potential. This centre provides education for the children to help prepare them for resettlement in a third country.

ElShaddai Centre Berhad (ElShaddai): A Christian-based humanitarian NGO with a vision to reach out to the displaced and marginalized community of various nationalities through compassion services and social work. They work with people from Myanmar, Cambodia, Indonesia and 15 other countries. The main centre conducts classes from kindergarten (ALPHA) to Primary 6 level (PRIME). It started with the Singapore Primary Syllabus, but in 2018, then switched to the Primary IGCSE modules in stages for ease of transition to the Secondary IGCSE level eventually.

Chin Student Organisation: In 2005, university students from Myanmar found Chin children wandering the streets of Kuala Lumpur and they decided to do something about it. When no one else would help, the students took it upon themselves to teach the kids. Our schools teach Chin, English, science, and maths to 500 students aged between four and seventeen years.

SHELTER: Helps register the children of refugees with UNHCR, to help give these children an identity. Extending the work, SHELTER also seeks to provide for the children’s care as well to organize food aid, clothing, shelter, medical care etc.

Zotung Refugee Catholic Learning Center “ZRCLC”: A refugee community school run by the Zotung Refugee Catholic Community “ZRCC” based in Kuala Lumpur. The aim is to provide a safe learning environment for Myanmar refugee children as their parents work for basic livelihood. Their school is provided into 4 classes: nursery, kindergarten, lower and upper primary. Some of the subjects taught include English, Math, and Burmese.

Project Stand Up: A youth-driven initiative focused on improving access to and participation in education, particularly for girls through their PSU Youth Leader program, Champion Education program, and training and workshops. These programs help them improve leadership skills, enhance problem-solving skills, and increase participation in education.

Dignity For Children: Provides quality education for children aged 2 – 18 years by utilizing a combination of the renowned Montessori philosophy and a uniquely Dignity learner-centred approach, which includes soft skills and vocational skills education.

Save School For Refugees Community in Malaysia: A refugee learning centre in Kuala Lumpur offering early childhood, primary, secondary and adult education.

Explore Our Sources:

  1. Tsen, E. L. (February 3, 2021). Penangites help Rohingya refugee transform kampung house into learning centre. Free Malaysia Today. Link.
  2. UNHCR. (n.d.). Education in Malaysia. Link.
  3. J.Hkawng, E.Fishbein. (2021). “I Lost My Education”: Refugees in Malaysia Face Widening School Gap. New Naratif. Link.
  4. Sayed, I., & Choi, J. (February 5, 2018). Inside Malaysia’s ‘Living Hell’ for Refugee Children. The New Humanitarian. Link.
  5. Sharma, P. (January 17, 2020). Empowering refugees through education. MONASH University. Link.
  6. Sani, R. (18 March, 2020). Providing university access for refugee youths. New Straits Times. Link.
  7. R.M. Yunus, N.A. Zainordin, N.S. Shamsuddin, N.A. Zailana, S.S. Hariyono. (2019). 70 percent of refugee kids do not go to school. New Straits Time. Link.
  8. 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.
  9. Crane, M. (2020). The vital role of faith communities in the lives of urban refugees. International Journal of Interreligious and Intercultural Studies. Link.

Written by: Aliesya Sofea

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