Refuse, Refute or Provide Refuge?

by | Mar 17, 2022 | Read | 0 comments

With crises around the globe displacing people overnight, the world is witnessing an influx of asylum seekers knocking on the doors of safer countries. However, not everyone welcomes with open arms. How should we respond to the refugee crisis?
You are qualified, but I’m sorry we can’t hire you. You’re a refugee, and we cannot take a risk. Mia has been turned down from job opportunities for merely being a refugee.  “You can be educated, capable and highly qualified for a job but the moment you present your refugee identification card, you are disqualified.” Mia shared to a group of refugee women at the Azalea Initiative leadership programme by Akar Umbi Society.  According to Mia, the ‘immigration status’ is the root of many problems faced by refugees in Malaysia.  Malaysia is not party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, a multilateral treaty that recognises an individual’s right to seek asylum and a nation’s role in upholding the rights of asylum seekers and refugees within their borders. As a result, there is no comprehensive legal framework in Malaysia that recognises a refugee’s right to work, among others.  In Malaysia the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) functions as an asylum agency for refugees, in the absence of a legal framework.

Act Like a Refugee!

Mia also recounted a conversation with a university professor who was addressing a group of refugee students. He told them nonchalantly, “You may be an A-star student, brilliant and shining from within your community, but you’re still a refugee. You cannot choose what you want to study. You should just accept what is given to you. Beggars are not choosers.” The professor continued his spiel: No one cares if you had the abilities to become a good doctor or not. Just accept whatever you are given, and If you are a refugee, act like one. The curt and discomforting words of the professor made Mia realise that being a refugee limits you from pursuing your lifelong aspirations. Several community-based organisations have started their own informal schools to plug the educational gaps faced by refugee children in their communities. Some are funded by the UNHCR or private donors and sponsors. These schools are able to pay community teachers a shoestring salary while others rely on the goodwill and help of volunteer teachers. Yet setbacks like the Covid pandemic make it harder for such schools to run as the concessions on the already meagre school fees make it impossible for them to pay rentals and salaries. Additionally, refugee families now have to contend with a lack of infrastructure and amenities for online classes. According to the UNHCR, 70% of refugee children within school-going ages do not attend informal school. We know the importance of education for our children, yet there are many in our midst who don’t have access to it. Acting like a refugee appears to mean having to become content with no aspirations, no options and no future. Although many individuals and organisations are doing what they can to improve and alleviate the circumstances of asylum seekers and refugees in Malaysia, there still is a chasm between Malaysians and ‘the other’.  In recent years, there have been mixed feelings about opening our doors to help asylum seekers. Rhetoric like “they are here to take our jobs” are often repeated. Yet one wonders if these mantras hold water, since the only informal jobs that refugees are able to get are the dirty, dangerous and difficult ones. There is reasonable doubt that Malaysians are clamouring for these careers.


Refugee Children who do not attend even informal schools

It is not a crime to be a Refugee

The misconception that everyone here without a document had an intent to enter Malaysia illegally doesn’t do justice to an individual and their reasons for being here. Some have come to Malaysia legally for work but due to unexpected circumstances, were not able to renew the documents and return before their documents became void. In the case of asylum seekers and refugees, many had to leave their home countries because of persecution and may not have been able to obtain the requisite documents in the midst of fleeing harsh circumstances.  We see on the news today, millions of Ukrainian people trudging to neighbouring countries to seek asylum and to avoid being killed in the invasion of their homeland. One moment they are residents, and almost in an instant, they are refugees. 

Article 5 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that: No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Article 14 states: Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.

Sometimes, the fear of the unknown is less frightening than the fear they have witnessed and experienced in their countries of origin. Yet, what lies before them can be equally frightening. Many have shared about the mistreatment and abuse they have received here in Malaysia. “When the students from my community mention they are refugees, other Malaysian students maintain a distance from them. It’s like we have a disease,” shared Mia to the group of women at the conference.  Being a refugee is not a crime. Yet, many are made to feel like they are criminals because of the reception from others.  There needs to be a careful understanding of why people are seeking asylum in Malaysia. Not everyone has been made to leave their countries for the same reasons. Some because of war, some because of cultural, religious and political disputes. The bottom-line is, everyone has a story and a reason for being here. Just because there is a lack of acknowledgement and clarity on their status here, does not make them criminals or law-breakers. Maybe we just need to know their story, and understand their circumstances better. That way, we see people for they truly are, instead of only the filters cast upon them by others.
Malaysians can love indiscriminately. That’s a big part of who we are, being a multiethnic and multifaceted community. 

Refute, Refuse or Refuge?

There is a positive picture of hope in all of this. When the Covid pandemic struck in 2020, the whole country went through a series of lockdowns. Jobs and sources of income were almost halted for all. Malaysians and non-Malaysians alike felt paralysed by the lack of freedom of movement and the scarce resources. Yet it presented an opportunity for many caring individuals and organisations to band together and provide food aid, funds and all sorts of material support to anyone in need. Social media and the internet broke open with all kinds of initiatives calling for people to identify others in need while inviting sponsors and donors to help provide for them. Restaurants and individuals packed and gave away free food, individuals offered their cars to transport aid to remote areas on the map, medical supplies were distributed to people affected by Covid –  everyone found someone to help. Many asylum seekers and refugees were recipients of such care and concern of Malaysians. At the same time, many refugees on their own and together with Malaysians, stepped up to help people in need. There was mutual support. People united despite their differences. Malaysians can love indiscriminately. That’s a big part of who we are, being a multiethnic and multifaceted community. We know how to love others different from us. Maybe we need a little more thinking and soul-searching about the asylum-seekers and refugees in our midst. Maybe we need to do a little more listening to their stories and take interest in their circumstances. Maybe we need to stand on their side of life and understand their complications – the struggles that led them here, and the struggles they are facing here due to a lack of status and opportunities.

Not everyone’s rights are recognised.

As long as you are human, your rights are acknowledged in a mutually agreed upon code of conduct called the Universal Declaration of Human Rights ( This document enshrines every person’s right to be treated fairly, without discrimination. In essence, everyone has rights. But not everyone’s rights are recognised because of differing legal frameworks, principles and systems of governance, from nation to nation.

In Malaysia, a documented refugee with the UNHCR can still be detained if caught working. There is much debate about whether refugees are allowed to obtain even informal work. Refugees too need to earn a living to provide for themselves and families, while awaiting the  outcomes of their UNHCR processes. 

Yet there is still a lack of agreement on what constitutes informal work. Some employers like restaurateurs are willing to offer menial tasks like dishwashing, kitchen hands and waitering jobs to refugees. Municipal contractors who manage waste collection, road sweeping and landscape maintenance are also willing to hire refugees. But the agreement of whether they can or cannot appears to be enforced asymmetrically. In some cases, when refugees are queried for working, they are let off when they produce their UNHCR card. In most cases, they are taken to the police station.

Asylum-seeking and refugee children do not have access to formal education. Although some private schools and universities offer programmes to uplift refugees – such as language courses – very few options remain available. Some programmes are only offered seasonally. 

Undocumented asylum seekers are at risk of arrest and detention. Walking down the street to buy groceries, deciding to get treatment at a hospital’s emergency ward, or approaching the police station to report a crime can be difficult decisions to make because of the fear of being detained. 

Once detained, they will be remanded for 14 days before they appear in court and sentenced to an indefinite detention. 

According to the Malaysia Immigration Detention Data Profile (2020) by the Global Immigration Detention Observatory, there has been a reported number of 47,092 in Malaysian detention centres since 2017. In 2020, the estimated number of detainees on any given day is about 13,000 per day. 

If a detention case has been reported to the UNHCR, there is a possibility for intervention and an early release. Sadly, for undocumented asylum seekers, there is little room for intervention and a high likelihood of them being sentenced to detention. Since 2019, the UNHCR has been denied access into detention centres. This restricted access has complicated registrations for undocumented inmates and for aid organisations to respond to critical needs within the walls of detention centres. 

Detention negatively affects and separates families. Young children of single-parent families become unaccompanied when their only caregiver is detained. Sickly or elderly parents become incapacitated and lose financial support when their only breadwinner is stuck in detention. Nursing mothers separated from their newborns put their babies through all sorts of health and emotional stresses and breakdowns. The only pathway out from detention is to be repatriated to the country they were trying to escape from. This further dismantles families and puts loved ones at risk.

The Azalea Initiative

As a refugee, the change of one’s circumstances being in a new country, environment and culture can be discouraging and confusing. Nevertheless, such hardship can build resilience and identity. The Azalea Initiative is a women’s leadership programme designed to empower young women to be change-makers within their communities. This programme provides women a safe space to discover themselves, their aspirations and the values that they bring to their communities. Find your sense of significance as a woman, develop your confidence with the support of another, and learn key leadership lessons. For more information about this programme, send us an message and follow us on social media for updates on our next round!