For the longest time, the word refugee has carried an unspoken negative perception to it. Host country communities may not be accepting of refugees and the refugee community often end up with the short end of the stick having to adapt to the new environment, culture, way of life and restrictions that come with being a refugee.
We often feel helpless, hopeless, and unprotected. – Htoon Htoon Oo, Myanmar Refugee and Activist
With no protection, refugees are plagued with risks and live dangerously. In Malaysia, they are no stranger to extreme circumstances. Some of these include mental and physical abuse, being underpaid and overworked, and being forced out of employment.
Most of the refugees who face these struggles are also dealing with depression and are mentally exhausted through thinking of ways just to survive and remain safe – Htoon Htoon Oo, Myanmar refugee and activist
Refugees Residing In Malaysia
As of May 2022, Malaysia is home to an estimated 182,960 refugees and asylum-seekers registered with the UNHCR in Malaysia- 157,040 are from Myanmar, comprising some 104,330 Rohingyas, 23,030 Chins, and 29,680 of other ethnic groups. From this number, some 46,570 are refugee children below 18 years of age.
Some people also label us as illegal immigrants even if we hold complete and authentic UNHCR refugee cards or documents. – Htoon Htoon Oo, Myanmar Refugee and Activist
Over the years, countless debates have surfaced to seek justice for refugees and the marginalised communities. But their fates remain unchanged.
The 1951 Refugee Convention recognises refugees’ rights and underlines fundamental protocols for refugees without discrimination. Unfortunately, Malaysia is not-party to this convention, nor does the country have a legal framework supporting refugees and asylum-seekers.
If anything, Malaysians – its society, along with its government and authorities, often give an impression that refugees are unwelcomed criminals. With no rights to protect them, refugees are often forgotten and invisible although they live among us.
From Sri Lanka To Malaysia : Aysha Nimmi Siraj Flees For Safety
The good news is that with education, the realities of refugees can be altered. The story of 45-year-old Aysha Nimmi Siraj- a refugee teacher, tells us so.
In 2013, Aysha fled Sri Lanka with her two daughters and late husband, fearing the life of her eldest child, a former sports protege.
But the only problem was that I had no full-time job and had to clean houses and work as a part-time cook to earn a salary so I could pay their fees. – Aysha Nimmi Siraj, Refugee Teacher
Education Renews Hope For Refugees
With the determination of a single mother, she fought her way through. Aysha navigated living in a new country with just her UNCHR status. She used her educational background – a journalism graduate as leverage and secured a job at a refugee educational centre.
With her newfound purpose, Aysha trained for three months and transitioned into a full-time teacher within the refugee community. Her classes don’t discriminate, they only seek to educate.
During the pandemic, impoverished refugee parents sought a qualified teacher to teach their children. These families couldn’t afford the additional requirements for online learning. That was when Aysha stepped in. From a refugee to a certified teacher, Aysha teaches English, Mathematics and arts and crafts.
Aysha only charges minimal fees and our children are happy with her teaching of mathematics, English and art and craft. – Belal Hossain and Zaibul Rahman, Refugees
Aysha’s classes are not only about teaching subjects and improving literacy, in her classroom Aysha intentionally cultivates a sense of community and belonging, ensuring the refugee children feel inclusive. As her classes progressed, the demand grew. Through the support of public donations and sponsorships, Aysha has paved the way for refugees and the stateless to get an education.
Stateless Children In Malaysia Robbed Of Opportunities
A stateless person is not a citizen of any country – even in the country they were born. Globally, about 4.2 million people are stateless. In Malaysia, there were at least 290,000 stateless children recorded in 2016. These children are born in Malaysia without an identity.
For stateless children, living without a birthday isn’t the absence of cake or party hats. It is a gruesome reality they face as they live without proper documentation. This robs them of several opportunities, the most basic being education, healthcare and employment.
How then are they expected to survive?
Akin to Aysha’s story, we have to understand that education and its impact are tremendous. Aysha was able to rewrite her story as a refugee because of the education she had.
Realising this, she has never turned a student away.
These children are on a difficult journey and without education, they are vulnerable to outside forces. – Aysha Nimmi Siraj, Refugee Teacher
In Malaysia, the appeal process for citizenship for stateless children progresses at a snail’s pace while the rules set in place to gain citizenship baffles us.
In March 2022, Batu Kawan MP Kasthuri Patto questioned the existing biassed treatment for granting citizenship.
One can play football for five years and become a Malaysian citizen, while those born here are only given their blue IC when they are senior citizens. – Kasthuri Patto, Batu Kawan MP
In Sarawak alone, only 253 out of 969 citizenship applications were approved between 2016-2021. Until then, the stateless are forced to play the waiting game.
The stateless children would continue to be denied receiving education, healthcare, employment opportunities and welfare assistance if they had to wait any longer (for the approval of the citizenship applications). – Datuk Sri Fatimah Abdullah, Minister of Women, Childhood and Community Wellbeing Development
Coming To The Aid Of Refugees
There seems to be a constant cycle where refugees are frequently found in a sticky situation.
From receiving ill-treatment to the inability to climb the social mobility ladder. The future of refugees living in Malaysia is still at stake and leaders in the refugee community are beginning to speak up.
We would like the Malaysian government to raise public awareness on the status of refugees as refugees, rather than as illegal immigrants, ‘risk’ groups or criminals. – Htoon Htoon Oo, Myanmar Refugee and Activist
As for the stateless, the Ministry of Home Affairs holds the power to grant citizenship. But transparency is called for to understand why the process is endless.
Until then, refugees and the undocumented have to rely on NGOs for momentarily support. Here are some organisations directly helping refugees and there are social enterprises set up to directly support refugee communities living in Malaysia.
Adding to the list of amazing organisations are more listed below:
Asylum Access are human rights advocates who support forcibly displaced individuals and communities as they reclaim their rights, agency and power. They aim to create a world where refugees everywhere can live safely, move freely, work, attend school and rebuild their lives.
TECH Outreach was registered as a Non Profit, Non-Government Organisation in May 2009 with the aim of transforming disadvantaged communities in Malaysia and few other international countries, through microcredit financing and entrepreneurship development. TECH’s main focus is Women and Children.
Doctors On Ground is a medical non-profit that champions sustainability in community development and healthcare for marginalised groups in Malaysia.
Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is an international medical humanitarian organisation. They deliver life-saving emergency medical humanitarian aid to people affected by armed conflict, epidemics, pandemics, natural disasters and healthcare exclusion.
And if you’re curious to learn more about the stateless and undocumented communities in Malaysia, here are 10 significant points about this vulnerable group of people – who live and work amongst us.
Explore Our Sources
- CIVICUS. (2021). MALAYSIA: ‘The government should have assisted refugees under the pandemic’. Link.
- UNHCR.(2022). Figures at a Glance in Malaysia. Link.
- UNHCR.(2022). The 1951 Refugee Convention.Link.
- The Vibes. (2022). The refugee who became a champion teacher for stateless children. Link.
- UNHCR. (2022). What is a Refugee? Link.
- FMT. (2022). How come foreign footballers can get citizenship but local stateless can’t, MP asks. Link.
- FMT. (2022). Sarawak can’t speed up citizenship for stateless children, says minister. Link.