In Malaysia, Myanmar's Refugee Children Go to School in Fear

In Search of Shelter

School for refugee children from Myanmar in Malaysia. Source: EngageMedia

Fleeing prolonged conflict and persecution in Myanmar, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims or Christian Chin find themselves living as refugees in neighbouring countries in Southeast Asia.

In Malaysia alone, there are an estimated 150,000 asylum seekers or refugees, mostly from Myanmar. A third of them are not registered with the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

Amongst them are thousands of unregistered school-aged refugees, who aren't allowed to attend public schools in Malaysia. Many of them resort to going to informal or community-run schools, where they live in constant fear of being arrested or harassed.

According to a video called ‘In Search of Shelter’ produced by Myanmar refugees in Malaysia, at a school catering to 360 Chin refugees, only 40% of the students are registered with the UNHCR. According to a Chin community leader in the video:

Students not registered with the UNHCR cannot get any exam recognition from the government or enter university. They also face security problems when they come to school and (travel) in between. Those aged 13, 14, 16 have been arrested many times.

In Search of Shelter is part of a 13-video series that aims to highlights the plight of the migrant worker and refugee community in Malaysia. The series called Crossroads aimed to teach migrant rights activists video production and distribution skills and was produced in collaboration with EngageMedia and Citizen Journalists Malaysia.

In the series, asylum seekers share how they've united and combined resources to establish access to basic services like health clinics and primary schools for their children. They also share the many hurdles they face in getting registered as refugees with the UNHCR in Malaysia.

In Search of Shelter, community leaders explain that many of the teachers in the school they have set up have been arrested by the police due to their lack of legal status.

Malaysia, which has stated that it will not sign the UN convention on refugees, also does not have any legal framework for national asylum and does not distinguish between refugees and undocumented migrants, leaving refugees at constant risk of detention, deportation and abuse.

Myanmar migrants in Malaysia

There are currently an estimated 150,000 refugees from Myanmar in Malaysia. Source: EngageMedia

At one of the community screenings of Crossroads held in Malaysia, the organizers found that 80 to 90% of those present have had personal experiences being harassed by the police or faced problems with permits and employers. One member of the audience pointed out that there have been incidences where even if they produce their registered refugee card or supporting letter, the document was simply torn up by the authorities that had approached them.

An undercover investigation by Al-Jazeera in 2014 revealed that some refugees pay up to $1,000 for official refugee status in Malaysia, as part of an illegal trade allegedly involving the UN Refugee Agency itself.

Migrant children from Myanmar

Migrant children from Myanmar at a United Nations advocacy event in Malaysia. Source: EngageMedia

With continued reports on acts injustice and exploitation committed against refugees in Malaysia, it remains to be seen how its government and the UNCHR will effectively address this grave and growing situation.


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