AS of January 2015, the United Nations High Commissioner For Refugees (UNHCR) Malaysia has registered 151,770 refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia, with the majority coming from Myanmar.
Of this, 15,380 are children of schooling age (aged six to 17 years).
However, it is estimated that only about 36% of these children have access to any kind of education programme. That still leaves around 64% of children who are denied their right to an education.
UNHCR representative Richard Towle (pic) says in Malaysia, refugee children are denied entry into the mainstream national school system.
“Refugees fall through the cracks of the system and have no lawful status,” he reveals, adding that they are “lumped together into the same group as illegal immigrants” because Malaysian laws do not make a distinction between refugees in need of international protection and economic migrants.
“So, we (UNHCR) have had to support a whole parallel system of education for the refugee children that’s not related to the national school system,” he says.
Currently, UNHCR supports over 120 community learning centres in Peninsular Malaysia that are run by the refugee communities themselves.
These education classes are located close to refugee populations with large numbers of children of schoolgoing age. Some 6,090 refugee children attend these centres.
“Some of these (learning centres) are very basic, while others are quite sophisticated and developed,” adds Towle.
He says that support is provided in the form of, among others, schoolbooks, uniforms, stationery, teachers’ remuneration and curriculum development.
“We’re also moving beyond the primary education level to the secondary level. Gradually we’re expanding the range of education opportunities for refugee kids.”
However, Towle notes another big problem - the children may learn a lot in these centres but without proper accreditation, they have no place to go.
“They may be educated and doing better in school but they have no future. They can’t go home, they may not be able to move anywhere else and they’re stuck here, without rights or legal entitlements,” he laments.
“If they don’t see any light at the end of the tunnel - where they’re going to live, what they’re going to do and what job they will do - if they don’t see any future,then of course it will affect their interest in learning,” Towle argues.
He hopes that the Malaysian Government can put in place laws and regulations to help refugees to prevent them from “slipping through the cracks and getting exploited.”
“There is still a lot that can be done to improve and support the refugees, particularly children,” he says, adding that access to healthcare facilities and proper education should take priority.
“They’re children first, migrants second, not the other way around,’’ he stresses.
“It’s really important that we understand that children should be protected as children,” he concludes.