Malaysia’s Refugees Are Not People in Transit


Rohingya children.

It’s difficult to tell apart a refugee and an asylum-seeker from an undocumented migrant or even a trafficked person; we are inclined to lump them all in a single class – as unwelcome outsiders.

Public discussion and information about refugees lack cohesive understanding, and this fuels unwarranted racism and xenophobia, says James Lochhead of the Penang Stop Human Trafficking Campaign (PSHTC), which works holistically to tackle situations of vulnerability, exploitation and lack of protection within refugee communities; as well as issues of human trafficking and modern-day slavery in Penang, Malaysia and across the region.1

Understanding Migration Terms

“A refugee is someone who is fleeing from a situation where their lives are literally at risk,” explains Lochhead. “The Rohingyas, for example, are the most publicly covered in the Malaysian media for escaping genocide – rape, torture, killing and the burning of their houses. They cannot go back home, so they sought refuge in Malaysia.

“But in order to establish their status as refugees, they have to register with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office in KL; this entails a vigorous process including the conducting of background checks. If the information presented is corroborated, a UNHCRverified refugee card will be given. An asylum-seeker is technically a refugee-in-waiting, pending processing by the UNHCR.”

As of June 2019, there are 175,760 refugees and asylum-seekers registered with UNHCR Malaysia. Of these, 152,220 are from Myanmar, comprising 95,110 Rohingyas; 24,250 Chins; 9,750 Myanmar Muslims; 4,000 Rakhines and Arakanese; and other ethnicities from Myanmar.2


There are 152,220 refugees and asylum-seekers from Myanmar registered with UNHCR Malaysia.

Refugees and asylum-seekers from other countries include Pakistanis, Yemenis, Syrians, Somalis, Afghans, Sri Lankans, Iraqis and Palestinians. Of the total, UNHCR Malaysia reports that 68% of refugees and asylum-seekers are men, while 32% are women; there are 44,880 children below the age of 18.3

A migrant worker, on the other hand, is as someone who has come into the country in search of job opportunities. “They are not running away from any situation except poverty. They are trying to better their lives, and see or have been told that Malaysia is offering them work opportunity that is significantly better than what they have back home.

“A documented migrant worker has in their passport a stamp indicating clearly that they are here for said duration of time and that they are working for said employer; an undocumented migrant worker is missing that stamp.

“In actual fact, however, many of these individuals probably came here as documented persons, but have either run away from their employers due to abuse and ill treatment, or they had overstayed their welcome.

“But in my experience, the biggest percentage of undocumented migrant workers are those who had run away from abusive employers, and in doing so, left their passports behind,” says Lochhead. More often than not, their passports are kept by the employer or company that recruits these workers which, under Malaysian law, is technically illegal.

Victims of human trafficking cuts across the board. “They could be a refugee or a migrant worker, or even a Malaysian who has ended up in the hands of human traffickers through coercion. It’s straightforward slavery. Around the world, activities of human trafficking are quite hard to prove, or it is hard to make clear what is needed to charge these traffickers. Not just in Malaysia but elsewhere in the world, there are sadly too few persecutions against human traffickers.”

Malaysia and its Refugees

For all intents and purposes, Malaysia acts as a transit for refugees. A non-signatory to the UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol, the country similarly has no legal and administrative framework in place to ensure the protection of refugees… yet.

Promises 35 and 59 in the Pakatan Harapan Manifesto, which respectively details “raising the dignity of workers and creating more quality jobs” and “to lead efforts to resolve the Rohingya and Palestine crisis”, are yet to see fruition.

“In theory, refugees who arrive in Malaysia are processed by the UNHCR before they are resettled in a third country. But the numbers of those being resettled are very small – much smaller than the people arriving. There are people whom I’ve worked with who have been in Malaysia for 30 years, and of course, some are married and have children.”

This disinclination towards refugees stems from a number of reasons. The official argument, says Lochhead, is security issues. “We are unsure who these people are, or if they are who they say they are. But again, this can be countered by the stringent UNHCR verification process. Understandably, there are concerns about who we invite into our home – that’s true with anyone coming in, be they migrants, tourists or refugees. But the refugee communities are the most verified and fairly obvious to monitor.


Distributing food at a Rohingya refugee camp.

“A more difficult argument to counter – and this applies worldwide – is that if we grant refugees rights, we will be swarmed. Every refugee in the world will want to come to Malaysia and this in itself is linked to the various UN conventions for refugees.”

But Lochhead stresses that countries that have signed the refugee conventions are actually not inundated. “On the contrary, there are documents and researches by credible institutions that highlight a significant value-add to the overall national economy with their inclusion and support.

“What’s interesting about Malaysia is that when you talk about refugees and migrants, there is a pronounced fear akin to phobia. We ‘don’t like’ foreigners; how interesting it is when you’re talking to someone, and that person in front of you almost certainly has, within a short history, a relative who was either a refugee or a migrant worker. It’s very strange,” he muses.

Vulnerabilities of Refugee Women

How does gender affect the lot of refugees? The Rohingya refugee community, for example, operates within a strict patriarchal system. The women are subservient to their men, and economic independence is encouraged only if their husbands are permanently incapacitated.

“This is reflective of how the dynamics work between men and women in Rohingya households. The women are seen in their traditional roles; while the men venture out to find employment to put food on the table. But all of these are superficial since none of them have substantial rights as refugees in Malaysia. Both men and women have no right to work and the children have no right to education – this runs contrary to Malaysia’s commitments under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child which allows every child in Malaysia access to education.


In Rohingya households, the men are typically the breadwinners.

“Everyone is struggling to survive economically. The men, for example, would find jobs in the construction industry. But – and this must be stressed – there is no protection nor guarantee of health and safety benefits should something happen to them during the course of their employment. And if they are left physically incapacitated, you can only imagine the struggle for such families.

“What’s even more worrying is if the men are detained by the authorities and placed in detention camps for stretches of time. This can go up to months and years. Imagine what it’s like for a refugee woman to be sitting at home not knowing if her husband is going to come back. Every time he steps out of the house, he’s vulnerable to being harassed, extorted or detained.

It’s living in limbo. “So the women must step up to the plate. It’s still very uncommon in the Rohinya community; she’d be viewed with suspicion even if her circumstances were made known to her people. But having said that and because of the inevitable economic pressures, I believe this is slowly reducing.”

The inaccessibility to education and more importantly, the absence of educational facilities, uncontestably widens the gender equality gap further. “There are very few primary education options available to children of refugees. At the moment, in Penang, if you’re below five or six years old, the chances for refugees in that age group to obtain an education is probably 15%. For children between the ages of six and eight, that percentage is about 45%, but the quality of education varies hugely. Once you reach the age of nine, however, the percentage slides back down again to 15%.

“One of the challenges is to convince parents to send their daughters to school and, to be honest, this has changed quite dramatically from a strong parental reluctance to a situation where you see more and more children coming in. But in the end, the women are to be married off; the parents will send their daughters to school up till the age of eight or nine, then you’ll see teachers reporting student dropouts, and upon further investigation, they’ll find out that the daughters are to be married off at a very young age. Child marriage is a huge issue.”


Rohingya refugee children lack access to education. In Penang, if the child is below five or six, he or she has only a 15% chance of going to school.

PSHTC Initiatives

Since its establishment in 2012, PSHTC has been working directly with the refugee communities in Penang “through schools which are run by the refugee communities or through our community workers who are refugees. We train them to organise themselves to address their concerns.

“On other levels, we try to open up new avenues through which they can express their concerns, since so much of our discussion regarding refugees now is done by nonrefugees. Nine times out of 10, if you walk into a conference on refugee rights, there won’t be any refugees in the room, nor any persons remotely connected in any meaningful way to working with the community. There is a huge gap between the discussion on refugees and refugees being aware of it.

“They need to have access to discussions concerning their welfare, access to education, and to look for ways to move forward to better their living conditions. It would make a world of difference if their rights are recognised,” says Lochhead.

Regina Hoo is a Broadcasting and Journalism graduate from the University of Wolverhampton.


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