Not recognised officially, refugees in Malaysia are left vulnerable to being exploited and yet all they hope for is a right to work, take care of their families and one day be able to go home.
According to UNHCR Malaysia, there are some 125,375 registered refugees and asylum-seekers in Malaysia as of October 2013.
The majority of the refugees are from Myanmar with their numbers totaling 116,568. The rest include 3,668 Sri Lankans, 1,146 Somalis, 804 Iraqis, 352 Afghans, and a small number form the others category.
UNHCR also believes that there are a further 49,000 asylum-seekers who remain unregistered.
Who are these refugees?
A refugee is defined as a person “who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his/her nationality and is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself/herself of the protection of that country.” – Article 1, The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees
There is often confusion between ‘refugees’ and persons who are ‘economic migrants’. Economic migrants voluntarily leave their countries in search of an improved financial position which is not so for refugees.
While economic migrants are still entitled to the protection of their home countries, refugees have lost such protection. Unlike economic migrants who have the option of returning home if they wish, refugees are unable to return to their home countries safely (UNHCR).
Sharif, a Somali refugee told this columnist, “I was threatened and sentenced to (death) killing. I lived a good life. I was an activist working with the civil society and I was also a teacher. For security reasons, I was not able to stay with my society.”
Similarly, Simon, a refugee from Myanmar was forced to leave his country as “the army wanted to arrest [him] because of [his] leadership in church activities.”
Like Sharif and Simon, refugees are often forced to leave their home countries due to serious discrimination, armed conflict or severe public disorder.
Refugees are not here to take advantage of our warm, welcoming Malaysia. They are here because they were ‘forced’ to escape from their home countries as they truly feared for their lives.
Challenges of living in exile
Unlike many other countries, Malaysia has no refugee camps. Thus, refugees in Malaysia have to live in low cost and overcrowded flats or houses.
Mostly, four or five families, or dozens of individuals share a living space for cost-saving and security reasons (UNHCR).
When asked about the primary challenges of living in exile in Malaysia, Sharif responded humbly, “We are thankful, we have peace, but we are lacking some other basic needs such as education for our children. Because of their refugee status, they have no access to either local or international schools.”
There are close to 28,000 refugee children below the age of 18 in Malaysia. Not only do these children have no access to formal education, they are also unable to enjoy even simple activities like playing outdoors, due to security fears (UNHCR).
To make matters worse, many of these children are forced to work in order to survive. Don’t they deserve a normal childhood and opportunities to be able to develop to their utmost potential just as any other Malaysian child?
Furthermore, Sharif pointed out that, “Since Malaysia did not sign the Refugee Convention, refugees are not allowed to work here [legally].” Leaving them with the only option of taking up dirty, dangerous and difficult jobs that local Malaysians are unwilling to do. They are exploited and paid extremely low wages or they may not even receive any wages.
For Simon, the major challenges of exile living in Malaysia include “culture, language, security issues and discrimination.”
The cost of healthcare, language barriers and difficulties in physically accessing healthcare facilities pose challenges for the refugees to receive good healthcare services in Malaysia. On top of that, they frequently face the risk of arrest, forced bribery, detention, punishment and deportation for immigration offences (UNHCR).
What can we do to help?
Malaysia is still a non-signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol and does not have any legal framework to regulate the status and rights of refugees. In fact, the BN government has been deliberately refusing to even recognize the existence of refugees in Malaysia, which leaves refugees vulnerable to countless human rights abuses as described.
We do not know how much more time it would take for the government to comprehend the ongoing plight of refugees in Malaysia. In any case, we should not solely depend on the incompetent government to fulfill our humanitarian obligation towards the refugees.
“To us all towns are one; all persons our kin,” reads a poem line by Kaniyan Puungundranaar, an ancient Tamil poet. (It is believed that the poem was written more than 2000 years ago.)
We are all part of the same reality. Maybe we are not ready to accept the refugees as our kin yet. But at the very least, let us acknowledge their existence as fellow residents of our nation.
Despite limited resources and against all odds, refugees work hard to help their own communities rebuild their lives by teaching each other new skills such as reading and writing, accessing healthcare and building solidarity (UNHCR).
We can do a lot to help the refugees to be better abled to help themselves. Making donations that goes to assistance programs, volunteering your time to teach or organize sport activities with the children and raising awareness about their issue are just a few possible ways.
Finally, when this columnist asked about their hope in life, Sharif responded that, “Where there is will, there is hope. I am patriotic, my hope in life is to see my country in peace. Before that, my dream is to see my children accepted into school and I am allowed to work freely.”
Likewise, Simon recorded, “I want to become a mentor and an entrepreneur to help the poor and needy people in my country, especially in education and health one day.”
It is evident that our refugee friends are living with high hopes regardless of their hardships. Let us be compassionate and play our part in making their dreams come true soon.