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Right to education for refugees

IN 2016, while I was volunteering for a program that provided health services for refugees, I came across a 20-year-old Rohingya man who complained of fever and cough for months. When he came to see me, he was skin and bones, was too weak to walk, and had a look on his face that clearly showed he had gone through a lot. I sat next to him and as we figured out how best to address his health issues, he shared his life story with me.

Maung had come to Malaysia three years earlier, after his village was attacked and burned a few days before he could sit for his final exam in high school. He was a brilliant student, who was always ahead in class. His parents and teachers were proud of him, and he had great ambitions in life. Not only that, Maung was a polyglot – he spoke seven different languages ​​(I did not believe so I tested him).

In the midst of the attack and chaos, Maung was separated from his family. He fled his village, jumped onto a boat, battled the waves, and after several weeks arrived at a faraway land. That land was Malaysia.

Maung subsequently tried to enroll himself in schools and colleges, but none accepted him. He did not have money nor the right documents. Eventually, he took up some odd jobs – one after another – to survive, but they came with a heavy toll on his health.

Maung grew sicker and weaker each day, and later he was forced to quit his job. From a straight-A brilliant student with a bright future awaiting, Maung turned into a homeless beggar, wondering from street to street, highway to highway, seeking food and shelter.

Today in Malaysia, there are close to 180,000 refugees and asylum-seekers. Approximately a quarter of them are children. Despite the abundance of natural resources, technological advancement and pride in multiculturalism that Malaysians love to speak of, refugee children have not been welcome into our public schools.

As a result, some of these vulnerable kids attend what is known as “Alternative Learning Centers” (ALC), while others receive no institutional educational at all. ALC are schools run by non-governmental organisations, faith-based organizations or refugee communities. These “schools” are often underfunded, lack adequate manpower, infrastructure and proper equipment, and operate in unsafe facilities.

Even though there are around 128 ALCs today, local studies show that only 30% of refugee children are enrolled in any kind of learning institutions. The implications of having a “lost generation” that remains out of the formal education system are immeasurable.

First, children who are not in school are more likely to engage in child labour. In the context of a socially-marginalized population, this refers to dangerous and exploitative work that is detrimental to the child’s physical and psychological growth. Many Rohingya children in Malaysia today, for instance, resort to street begging and scavenging as a means to survive and support their families.

Second, when a child does not go to school – and this is especially true for a girl – she is more likely to become a victim of child marriage.

Third, these children can more easily fall into child trafficking and engage in harmful or even criminal activities.

While efforts to support LAC (whether financially and logistically) are commendable, it is time that we – as a nation – take the bold step of tackling this issue in a more systemic and sustainable manner.

Building another ALC or improving an existing one will allow some more refugee children access to education, but it will not solve the perennial problem of systematic marginalization of refugee children. Nor will it fulfill their needs to integrate into our society for long-term harmony and cohesion.

The best way to do this, once and for all, is by incorporating them into our national education system. Put simply, let them enroll in our public schools and universities. This step is huge, and not without challenges. But it will be the most viable and principled solution.

For instance, take Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. These three countries are among the top refugee-hosting nations in the world. Turkey currently hosts more than three million refugees, while Jordan and Lebanon hosts close to a million refugees, each.

All of them have generously and courageously opened the doors of their public schools to refugee children. They have even gone to great lengths of making massive adjustments to their school system and schedules to accommodate these vulnerable children.

Can Malaysia do the same?

There are some usual pretexts for justifying the deprivation of refugees from access to basic social services in this country. These include the argument that Malaysia is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention (we never signed it, so why should we shoulder this responsibility?).

Other arguments are the large number of refugees, strain on financial resources and the fact that Malaysia is only a transit country (refugees are eventually meant for resettlement, so why should we invest on them?).

First, not signing the 1951 Refugee Convention may mean – as argued by some – that Malaysia is not obliged to fulfill refugees’ certain rights. But that does not mean we cannot do it.

It is a matter of choice and political will. Lebanon has not signed the 1951 Refugee Convention too, but the country has taken progressive steps in giving refugee children access to public schools.

Furthermore, Malaysia acceded to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which affirms that every child has a right to education, and that primary education should be made free for all.

Is the number of refugees too big?

The number of refugees and asylum-seekers in our country is way smaller if compared to many other countries, including Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. At the same time, economically, our country is more solvent. Malaysia’s gross domestic product (GDP) per capita stands at more than US$10,000 (RM43,980) while Turkey’s, Jordan’s and Lebanon’s hovers around US$8,500, US$4,300 and US$4,600, respectively.

Obviously, there are other factors that should be taken into account while judging a country’s economic stability or prosperity, but these statistics indicate where our country is and what we are capable of.

As the last myth, it is important to note that many refugees become disillusioned with the promise of resettlement. This is because the number of existing refugees and the pace at which populations are becoming forcibly displaced worldwide (as a result of conflicts and violence) outnumber the resettlement capacity.

Resettlement on the other hand is not a simple and straightforward process. It is tedious, bureaucratic and liable to sudden changes in the destination country’s policy. It is now known that globally, less than 5% of refugees get resettled, while the remaining 95% are stuck in limbo.

It is, thus, imperative that Malaysia as a nation starts thinking seriously about our refugee population and face reality. If resettlement is not the ultimate solution, the next best thing is local integration.

Every child has a right to education

When we say this, we are talking about formal education that is accessible, affordable and of good quality. A study by Ideas, or Malaysian Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs, in 2019 reported that “granting refugees access to education on par with locals would increase their contribution to GDP to over RM6.5 billion each year by 2040, with annual tax contributions of over RM250 million”.

Local integration of refugee children through a more inclusive education system will enrich Malaysia’s long-standing tradition of diversity and tolerance. Having people of different cultural backgrounds, languages, worldviews and skill sets – starting from schools and childhood socialization – is one of the most effective ways to build a better and more prosperous nation.

As we celebrate World Refugee Day this year, let us all reflect deeply on this issue and ask ourselves if we have done adequate justice to the vulnerable and defenceless refugee children in this country.

Dr Raudah Yunus, Lecturer and Public Health Specialist, Faculty of Medicine, Universiti Teknologi Mara. Comments:


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