For most of us Malaysians, the term refugee will be almost synonymous with migrant worker and undocumented or illegal workers. Refugees are people who are escaping their home countries on the basis of a variety of reasons like genocide, political prosecution, unfair judicial system and so on and is unable or unwilling to return because of a well-founded fear of being persecuted unfairly. It can be true that some refugees are undocumented or illegal as the UNHCR hasn’t documented them and if they have been then they become migrant workers.
According to UNHCR, as of end March 2020, there are some 179,520 refugees and asylum-seekers (every refugee is initially an asylum seeker whose claim for international protection has not yet been decided on by the country in which they have submitted it therefore not every asylum seeker will ultimately be recognised as a refugee) registered with UNHCR in Malaysia. Some 154,460 (86 %) are from Myanmar, comprising some 101,580 (65.8 %) Rohingyas, 22,660 (14.7 %) Chins, and 30,220 (19.6 %) others from Myanmar. There are some 25,050 refugees and asylum-seekers from other countries, including some 6,690 Pakistanis, 3,720 Yemenis, 3,310 Somalis, 3,300 Syrians, 2,660 Afghans, 1,820 Sri Lankans, 1,270 Iraqis, 790 Palestinians, and others from other countries. Out of the total number of refugees, 46,740 (26 %) are children below the age of 18.
Where does this leave them?
Since refugees in Malaysia do not enjoy a legal status as Malaysia is not party to the 1951 Refugee Convention or its Protocol (which 145 countries are signatories), their entitlement to public services is minimal. UNHCR registered refugees and asylum seekers are not entitled to Government-funded social security. Refugees in Malaysia are also not entitled to access the public-school system. Some limited education is provided instead through an informal parallel system. These centres are administered by NGOs, charities and the refugee community and are reliant on fundraising and international aid. As of 2018, only 33% of refugee children of school-going age are enrolled in these community learning centers.
This then brings us back to the question and the accusation a lot of people are throwing around: Are we spending a whole lotta money on refugees? Most funding for refugees have been on a voluntary, NGO, charity based. During this latest MCO caused by the Covid- 19 pandemic, most of the help that was afforded to the various refugee communities around Malaysia were solely voluntary for grocery and food aid mostly as migrant workers were the first people to be laid off their jobs. Being majorly daily wage worker, they were hard hit by the recent economic inflictions caused by the MCO.
Are they a threat?
On the other hand, how much do refuges contribute to the economy? During this latest MCO, some Selayang wholesale market traders are asking the government to make it legal for refugees to work as it’s not possible to go back to full capacity of work without foreign workers. Based on this, can we really say that migrant workers are taking job opportunities away from Malaysians? Most Malaysians are not interested in doing and being paid minimum wage or less for the jobs that these migrant workers do such as long hours and hard work at construction sites, runners for the Selayang market vendors, cleaners, garbage collectors and others. Let’s face it, no one is queuing up for menial work.
In fact, there was a policy paper published in 2019 by the Institute of Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS) suggesting that the impact of granting refugees in Malaysia the right to work could increase their contribution to the annual GDP to over RM3 billion by 2024 and increase their contribution to taxes to over RM50 million each year by 2024.
What about crime? Are migrant workers huge contributors of crime in Malaysia? In 2019, there were a total of 6, 689 crimes committed by foreigners (not only migrant workers or refugees). This is in fact a drop from 13,110 cases in 2016 to 11,441 cases in 2017 and 10,751 cases in 2018, according to the Home Ministry. This is in spite the fact that the number of refugees in Malaysia has increased and almost doubled from 90,000 in 2011 to 179,520 in 2020. These communities have had their share of being victims to crimes and discriminatory practices themselves.
What does this all mean?
Like most communities that are less privileged, these communities have often been taken advantage of by the average Malaysian, employers and even authorities. We have all been there when busses might not stop when a big group of foreign workers stand by the road waiting to board the bus or how employers prefer hiring foreign workers mainly to pay them below the already low minimum wage standards in Malaysia or when authorities stop to ask for money from undocumented workers for not turning them in. Recently, A Malaysian police officer singled out two foreign women at a movement control order (MCO) roadblock, then allegedly abducted and raped them at a hotel.
So really, are Malaysians the victims here from the “influx” of refugees who are willing to work in the most menial of jobs and be treated the way they are just to survive? Who WANTS to be a refugee in Malaysia? Who CHOOSES that? Who chooses to be born in Rakhine, Myanmar as a Rohinya Muslim and then face repeated violence and driven away by their own government? A bunch of people with no where to go , who risk dying in their homes or having a slim chance of some sort of life elsewhere don’t really have a CHOICE. They’re just people on a boat, waiting. Remember that these people literally risk losing their lives from starving at sea, boats capsizing and drowning for a glimpse of opportunity than face the violence in their home countries. I am automatically reminded of the photo of the 3 year old Syrian boy who drowned at sea not even 5 minutes after boarding a an inflatable boat to Europe but washed up on the shores of Turkey.
What can we do?
The refugee dilemma really leaves us to only look within. It starts with our language. Our post-colonialism love has made us “white-worshippers” that make us address people from more developed countries and more white as EX-PATS (while the rest are called migrant worker/foreign worker) while the fact that they take away many more high-paying opportunities from Malaysians goes unnoticed. Malaysia’s brain drain is REAL! With a population of just slightly above 32 million people, almost 1 million people are abroad as of 2011 indicating the numbers have steadily grown over the years. According to the Wealth Report in 2016, 84% of Malaysian jobseekers are willing to pack up and leave for an overseas job just so that their lives would be better. Meanwhile, a World Bank study showed that 72% of those Malaysians who have migrated do so for better career opportunities. One of the most quoted statistical fact is that about two out of 10 Malaysian professionals eventually leave the country.
The refugee dilemma exposes Malaysians who are in support of letting people die at sea for what they truly are, racists and xenophobic. Maybe we can’t help it. We live in a country that for 56 years have been ruled by race based political parties, and still is and we haven’t moved past that. We see most things in this country by race first, it’s on every form we fill and behind every question we ask our children when they come home from school after an altercation with a friend. We are (insert RACE here) first before people. It’s easy for that to translate to every other action we choose to take or not.
But there is hope. Personally, I have collected about RM 3000 in the last one month and a half from friends solely for food and groceries for refugee communities in Selangor and Kuala Lumpur and this would not have been possible if people were not empathetic to the plight of these refugee. Although most of these incidences have been in urban areas where the acceptance of migrants is higher this is still quite a feat. It is also hopeful that there has been a rise of acceptance of migrants amongst the younger generation and with the rise in education with those with at least four years of education after high school or college degrees being the most likely to be accepting. Hopefully, Malaysia will one day be at the top of the list of countries most kind to its refugee and migrant communities but before that happens, it’s going to take a lot of introspection into our own choices and prejudices.