Life As A Child Refugee In Malaysia

Sharifah Shakinah was only five years old when she came to Malaysia. She is from a Muslim community in Arakan, Myanmar. After facing hardships and discrimination in her home country and losing her mother who tried to come to Malaysia illegally to the authorities who put her into jail for two years, she was sent to her relative’s house.

Source: Malaysia Kini

They were a happy family with their own children, but they abused me. They hit me until my teeth broke. In fact, the family dressed me up as a boy, and shaved my head to look the part. I still don’t quite know why. – Sharifah Shakinah lived in Malaysia as a child refugee, founder of the Rohingya Women’s Development Network[1]

Later, Sharifah was sent on a boat headed to Malaysia where her father was. The journey was hard and people were throwing up on each other due to seasickness. She met her father there.

But things did not get any better in Malaysia. Till the age of 24, Sharifah spent her life in Malaysia, before moving to the USA. She is fluent in Bahasa Melayu owing to the education she received. Her father toiled to ensure that Sharifah could attend a private Islamic primary school.

She was physically here in Malaysia but, mentally she was in Myanmar. She had tried her best to fit into Malaysian society so they would accept her but to no avail. Sharifah had her bouts of being bullied when in school. 

Because I had been rejected, and rejected, and rejected all my life and I didn’t want to be rejected again.  – Sharifah Shakinah lived in Malaysia as a child refugee,founder of the Rohingya Women’s Development Network  [1]

Sharifah is one of the many child refugees that struggle to fit in the host country while facing discrimination.

Around The World

Approximately, there are 35 million children (42%) out of the 82.4 million refugees around the world below the age of 18 in 2020[2].

68% of the refugees that are seeking asylum in other countries are from the Syrian Arab Republic, Venezuela, Afghanistan, South Sudan, and Myanmar[2].

According to UNICEF, climate change, warfare and poverty, are prompting families to  leave their countries with millions of children in tow [3].

Source:MOHD RASFAN/AFP/Getty Images, retrieved from Foreign Policy

Refugee children face hardships at such a young age when they lose or move away from their homeland. Some have been abandoned or removed from their families. They may have also been victims of violent crimes, including exploitation, neglect, and trafficking [4].

Refugee Children In Malaysia

Source: Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun, retrieved from Malay Mail

Malaysia has seen an increase in the number of refugee children in recent years, with more than 9000 added in less than three years[5].

By 2019, over 51,000 of the 164,620 documented refugees are under the age of 18[5]

The children are exposed to struggles such as barriers to education, the fear of speaking up and being prone to mental health issues. 

Barriers To Education

Refugee children are barred from attending the free government school system and other public examinations to allow them to pursue further in their education.

There are NGOs and learning centres determined to educate the refugees. However, the centres encounter a variety of challenges, including a lack of financial resources and trained teachers, security and safety, overcrowded courses, and unsanitary facilities.

Source: UNHCR

In Malaysia, the lives of refugees and their children are difficult. Refugee children are thought to have had little option but to follow their parents or adult carers and adjust to their new host nation[5].

According to Dr Baharudin Suri, Haluan’s welfare and humanitarian bureau vice-president, more than 23,000 refugee children of schooling age in Malaysia were denied rights to education[6].

Since they have no right to public education, they rely on community-based organisations and NGOs for basic learning skills. They might encounter several defeats in terms of social life, and people might perceive them as outsiders or parasites of the community.

Their lives will be dependent on the welfare of charities and they will also resort to negative coping mechanisms  like child marriages, crime and human trafficking for their daily survival.- Dr Baharudin Suri, Haluan’s welfare and humanitarian bureau vice-president[6]

Another barrier is that refugee children have to learn the new language of the host country and face discrimination and harassment in the new school [7].

The Vulnerability Faced By The Children

A study carried out to understand the perspective of refugee children and families in Malaysia found that children are reluctant to talk about their families. To the children, talking about their family would threaten the harmony of the family[5]

Refugee children feel vulnerable as they have witnessed their parents or caretakers being discriminated against by someone in the host country. Sometimes it incites a sense of helplessness in them. The children perceive themselves as stateless due to the unwelcoming treatment of the host country[5].

Prone To Mental Health Issues

Exposure to organised crime and stress from migrating also contributes to the risk of developing psychological and mental problems in newly arrived refugee adolescents.

Anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are the most common disorders in these cases[8].

Also, the children who have witnessed the traumatic death of their loved ones have a greater chance of suffering mental health problems. This contributes to unhealthy coping mechanisms such as suicidal behaviours and substance abuse. 

The prejudice of the local host community, unemployment, and lack of social support leads a child to have poor mental health[5].

Learning From Other Countries

Malaysia may learn a thing or two  from other countries that are effectively hosting refugee communities. The listed countries: Turkey, Colombia and Uganda, are hosting most of the refugee communities in the world.  

Source: Daily Sabah
  • Turkey currently hosts 3.7 million refugees, mostly from Syria [2]. Turkey adopted the No Lost Generation initiative in 2013 and partnered with UNICEF to prioritise education, child protection, adolescent and youth, health and basic needs[11].
  • Colombia has provided over one million Venezuelan refugees with access to local education and health services since 2015[12].
  • Uganda did not adopt the strategy of refugee encampment as the majority of refugees live in rural communities with Ugandans. Other than arranging public health, child protection and education, they also provide birth registry services[13].

You Can Help The Refugee Children

country. Everyone can make a difference, and if we all work together, we can make a positive difference for these kids and end the stigma they face. Here are the four things you can do to change their life for the better:

Source: Fugeelah

Changemakers Helping The Refugees In Malaysia 

In Malaysia, several organisations are assisting refugee children. Those that are aiding are:

  • UNHCR in Malaysia offers a volunteer programme that currently has over 400 Malaysian and non-Malaysian volunteers to help the child refugees. Register by filling out an online application and registration form on their website. 
  • Asylum Access Malaysia (AAM) launched in 2014 provides refugees with free legal advice. The organisation also put forth workshops and access healthcare are also provided by them. They are always open to more volunteers to assist. 
  • Tzu Chi Malaysia and the UNHCR collaborate on refugee education and medical aid. The refugee children are taught by teachers and volunteers.
  • United Learning Centre offers Myanmar refugees education and a place to reside. They operate a 70-student boarding school with hot meals and medical exams for refugee children.

Written by: Deevika Sasadaran, edited by Wiki Impact Team

Explore our sources: 

1. A.Razak (2020). Lone Passage: Sharifah. Malaysia Kini. Link.
2.  UNHCR. (2021). Refugee Data Finder. Link.
3.  UNICEF. (2021). Migrant and Displaced Children. Link.
4.  UNHCR. (2021). Children. Link.
5.  J.K. Kok. & et al. (2021). Refugee Children In Malaysia: Perceptions of Family and CopingMechanisms. TQR. Link.
6.  A.David.  (2022). Poverty Stricken Refugees Deserve Education. New Straits Times. Link.
7.  M.Anderson.(2020). Refugee Children: The Challenges They Face and the Efforts to Overcome Them. Denver Journal Of International Law & Policy. Link.
8.  F.Khan. & et al. (2020). Refugee and Migrant Children’s Mental Healthcare: Serving the Voiceless, Invisible, and the Vulnerable Global Citizen. National Library of Medicine. Link.
9.  UNICEF: Turkey. (2019). Humanitarian Action for Children (HAC). Link.
10. Relief Web. (2020). Colombia’s Education Crisis: Result From a Learning Assessment of Host Community and Venezuelan Refugee  Children. Link.
11. UNICEF. (2017). UNICEF Uganda’s emergency response to refugees. Link.
12.  UNHCR. (2021). How Volunteers Help Refugees. Link.

Cover image: Al Jazeera

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