Let refugee and asylum-seeking children be children

Ethnic Chin girls from Myanmar studying at a school run by a refugee group in Kuala Lumpur. Source: UNHCR

Ethnic Chin girls from Myanmar studying at a school run by a refugee group in Kuala Lumpur. Source: UNHCR

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All of us have felt the significant impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on our lives and livelihoods, and lamented its worrying effects on our children’s learning loss and their physical and mental wellbeing.

Living in our midst are thousands of refugee and asylum-seeking children, who are among the most vulnerable groups of children in our society, and have experienced the full force of the pandemic’s impact on their lives.

Their families and communities have struggled with food and housing insecurities, loss of employment, limited access to social support services, and heightened fear of arrest and detention over the course of the pandemic. These struggles have disproportionately impacted their access to education and healthcare.

A recent report launched by The Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS) Malaysia and UNICEF Malaysia, supported by the European Union, assesses the severity of these impacts and urgently calls attention to this group of children that have been left far behind.

The need for a comprehensive legal framework and inclusive policies

Malaysia remains a non-signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. However, this has not stopped the country from being one of the main destinations for refugees and asylum-seekers in Southeast Asia — as of June 2022, there were 184,080 refugees and asylum-seekers registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Malaysia, of whom 47,200 are children, not accounting for undocumented individuals.

Without a legislative and administrative framework in place to protect their rights, refugees and asylum-seekers struggle to meet even their basic needs and have to survive with limited freedom of movement, no right to legal employment, and significant barriers to formal education and affordable healthcare.

This status quo means that they continue to be excluded from these fundamental rights and opportunities. Refugee and asylum-seeking children with disabilities additionally face compounded challenges in an already difficult living situation.

For instance, despite the amendment of the Education Act 1996 in 2002 to make primary education compulsory, refugee and asylum-seeking children continue to be denied access to national schools.

Existing government circulars that regulate the admission of non-Malaysian children to national schools such as the Surat Pekeliling Ikhtisas No 1/2009 and Surat Siaran Kementerian Pendidikan Malaysia Bil (3) Tahun 2018 do not apply to refugee and asylum-seeking children.

As a result, the only way to access education for these children is through informal means, such as through Alternative Learning Centres (ALCs), which come with a myriad of challenges, with financial constraints being the most prevalent.

Further, as ALCs only provide primary and secondary education, these children have limited to no options for post-secondary education, rendering higher education often an unattainable dream.

“We are really concerned about our refugee children’s future, what they will do after they graduate from our learning centre, and what they can pursue for their tertiary education. For our centre, we have about 11 students who passed IGCSE, some of them did really well. But they do not have the chance to pursue what they want.” said Jaw Tu Hkawng, a Kachin refugee advocate.

This leads to many children losing motivation to learn and be in school because they do not see the point of obtaining an education.

In terms of healthcare, the amendment of the Fees Act (Medical) 1951 in 2016 mandates non-citizens to pay between 24 to 100 times more than Malaysian citizens to access public healthcare services.

While refugees and asylum-seekers registered with UNHCR are entitled to a 50% discount off the foreigners’ rate, the fees are still far beyond what many can afford.

“We are grateful that the Malaysian government gave us a 50% discount [for primary care services at public hospitals], but that is still a lot for us because we do not have that income [to afford the medical fees].

It is 50% from the foreigners’ rate, which is still 10 times higher than the locals' rate,” said Jaw.

While they have access to NGO health facilities for primary healthcare, they do not have such options when it comes to secondary and emergency care. The lack of access to affordable healthcare leads to delayed presentation and increased risk of morbidity.

“There is always delayed presentation due to financial and security reasons. As resources are so scarce and limited, health becomes a secondary matter. Delayed presentation is almost a norm in the refugee community. How many times have you heard a refugee child being admitted to intensive care for something as simple as gastroenteritis? They wait for the last moment because they cannot afford it.” said Dr Siti Noraida, the founder of Klinik Amal Muhajir, an NGO refugee healthcare provider.

Malaysia has an obligation to protect refugee and asylum-seeking children

Despite being a non-signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, Malaysia is a party to the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) and the 2006 UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD).

Under these conventions, Malaysia has to ensure refugee and asylum-seeking children, including those with disabilities, have the right to receive protection and humanitarian assistance, the right to education and the right to healthcare, among other fundamental rights.

These conventions apply to all children in a country, not only of a country. Hence, Malaysia has to uphold its duty to protect the rights of refugee and asylum-seeking children. As an upper middle-income country and a member state of the UN Human Rights Council, we must recognize that a child’s status should not be a barrier to accessing their basic rights.

It comes back to granting refugees and asylum-seekers the legal right to work

The main barrier to accessing education and healthcare for refugee and asylum-seeking children is poverty and the lack of financial resources due to limited livelihood opportunities.

“The problem is that the parents do not have enough income and a decent job to support their children’s education or to fund medical healthcare,” said Jaw.

An important first step to change the life outcomes of refugee and asylum-seeking children is to grant refugees and asylum-seekers the legal right to work.

Currently, they are left with no choice but to earn a living through informal employment, often in dirty, dangerous and difficult jobs in the low-wage category, and their lack of legal status makes them vulnerable to exploitation by employers who may even withhold their wages in some cases.

With the legal right to work, refugee and asylum-seeking families can have opportunities to earn a stable income to support their children’s education and health needs.

This will greatly improve their socio-economic situation, allowing them to be self-reliant and live dignified lives, while also filling labour gaps and contributing positively to the economy of the country — a step towards a future where all children, including refugee and asylum-seeking children, are able to thrive.

Kirjane Ngu is a Social Policy Researcher from the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS)