Rethinking Malaysia’s position on the refugee crisis

IN light of events in the Gaza Strip, Malaysia demonstrated characteristic empathy, as both the government and general public showed solidarity with Palestine. However, alongside this commendable demonstration of national solidarity, it is important we direct our gaze inwards and assess local responsibilities, particularly with refugees residing in the country.

The current refugee crisis in Malaysia is stagnant, with minimal advancements made towards their treatment and acceptance into society. As a consequence of the current pandemic, their presence has been further antagonised; scapegoating sentiments have proliferated, leaving them in a more precarious position than before. 

Malaysia is experiencing a tumultuous period of socio-economic uncertainty, political instability, and a deteriorating mental health crisis. It is thus understandable that many may view the welfare of refugees as less pressing in the scheme of things.

However, we must not disregard the issue as less significant. If anything, this pandemic has highlighted the very gaps in our policies that demand attention, presenting opportunities to initiate discourse. Perhaps, looking comparatively at our neighbours and their responses will give us an opportunity to reflect.

Advancements by our Southeast Asian counterparts

While Indonesia and Thailand have yet to adopt comprehensive integration systems, they are still making noteworthy progress in their respective refugee crises. 

Indonesia’s advancement in realising refugee rights and allowing refugee children to enrol into schools marks a considerable step in the right direction. With increased access to education, refugees are able to gain the autonomy, mobility, and power needed to escape the poverty trap and pursue higher skilled ambitions and career paths.

The social integration through schooling alongside locals humanises refugees, moderating the narrative of ‘us vs them’, and making headways for tolerance and acceptance. 

Enrolling refugees into formal education may not seem drastic, but with alternative-based learning centres lacking funding and divisive narratives perpetuated by segregation, formal education provides opportunities and gateways for a far more stable and secure future. 

Thailand has struggled with full integration due to the troublesome relationship between locals and refugees. However, its national screening mechanism, conceived in 2019, shows potential for progress. 

Thailand’s ad hoc approach to refugee policy has encouraged the country to develop and implement a national legal and institutional framework, granting Protected Person Status to anyone eligible. 

While Thailand has yet to formulate a clear criteria and pathway for refugees, this application process is said to increase protection and integration of refugees into the labour market and other social spaces. 

Despite not being a comprehensive integration system, it still bears the positive effects of social integration, similar to Indonesia’s current approach. 

Perhaps it is time for Malaysia to consider something similar. 

Refugees in the Malaysian Context 

While progress has been made in Malaysia, there is an evident lack of direct government action. 

Refugee assistance schemes in Malaysia have been introduced by private sector corporations, demonstrating some degree of public political will. For example, HELP University, in collaboration with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, launched Project Self Help to provide free educational opportunities to young refugees in Malaysia.

There needs to be action from the government. More mechanisms must be implemented to recognise and integrate refugees into society and facilitate social-cohesion. 

A lack of integrative policies is divisive, and can deprive refugees of access to public healthcare and social safeguards. Covid-19 has highlighted the negative consequences of existing inequalities, exemplified when over 700 refugee children were detained in crowded immigration facilities with no social distancing measures. 

More integrative systems and policies would allow refugees to live up to their full potential, allowing them the chance to contribute to our society and the economy. 
A previous policy paper written in 2019 by The Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS) identified how refugees could contribute RM3 billion to Malaysia’s gross domestic product by 2024, and increase tax revenues by RM5 million each year if given the right to work. This suggests that such a move could cascade into beneficial national outcomes. 

While it may be unrealistic to implement these policies concurrently given the political nature of the issue, we should consider granting them formal education or the right to work as an initial step. 

However, the cost and challenges in mobilising refugee integration needs to be addressed. 

Long term impacts suggest if the government were to provide free health care and education to refugees, the costs could run up to cost up to RM150 million per year. 

As Malaysia is faced with economic strains which are exacerbated by the pandemic, integration and resettlement of refugees is approached with reluctance. 

Discourse surrounding refugees is often controversial and their presence is viewed by some as problematic. However, as a nation, the cost of human dignity and our humanitarianism should outweigh this financial burden.

Acknowledging refugees and creating discourse must be encouraged as a requisite for future progress. This issue cannot and should not be dismissed. 

How we approach and treat this issue sets a precedent for how much Malaysia values human rights and humanitarian issues. We cannot be insular, but must protect everyone who resides in Malaysia. 

Our neighbouring countries have taken novel steps to do so, perhaps we should look to do the same. If we can find solidarity, being empathetic and compassionate to Palestinan refugees, why can we not do the same for our own? – September 2, 2021.

* Sofia Farouk is a research intern at IDEAS Malaysia. 

* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight. Article may be edited for brevity and clarity.

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